SANTIAGO, CHILE - Chileans are learning the downside of being an economic success story. Waves of migrants from poorer Latin American countries are coming to Chile, putting a strain on social services and causing local resentment. It is beginning to become as politicized as in the United States and Europe.
Chile has one of Latin America's strongest and steadily growing economies, with a projected increase in GDP of over 4 percent this year. Chile also has low levels of corruption and the region's highest per capita income of $15,000.
As a result, immigration to Chile has more than tripled in the last two years, from 462,000 in 2015 to approximately 2 million in 2017, raising the foreign-born portion of the population to 7 percent from less than 3 percent.
Stricter U.S. barriers
The influx is partly the result of migrants flooding out of Venezuela in the wake of that country's economic collapse. Venezuelans are being accepted in Chile as political refugees. Many of them have educated, middle-class backgrounds and professional qualifications that facilitate their assimilation.
Stricter U.S. barriers to immigration could also be diverting migrant flows away from established North American routes and toward Latin America's wealthy southern cone countries, including Argentina, where large numbers of Colombians and other Caribbean migrants are arriving.
"No other country in South America has been impacted as much by immigration as Chile," said interior ministry immigration official Mijail Bonito. In a country where extreme poverty had all but disappeared, immigrant ghettos — where entire families share 2 x 2 meter spaces in rickety dormitory shacks and tent cities — are now spreading.
Bonito told VOA that the problem has recently become "visibly accentuated" with the arrival over the past 18 months of 160,000 poor Haitians escaping the chaos engulfing their poverty-stricken country.
Some officials say Chile became a choice destination as a result of its participation in a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed to Haiti after the devastating 2012 earthquake.
"Haitians discovered Chile through soldiers who spread the word of good paying work and social benefits," said Rodrigo Delgado, district mayor of the Santiago suburb of Estacion Central, which has one of the highest concentrations of Haitians at 15 percent of the local population.
The government is also conducting 17 investigations into alleged human trafficking rings that have lured Haitians with promises of work, housing and loans.
Spanish-speaking migrants from neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Colombia have blended more easily with Chile's ethnically mixed European and Indian population. But Afro-Caribbeans are more conspicuous in a traditional insular country unused to much racial or cultural diversity.
"This is an invasion," said a Santiago taxi driver, pointing to black Haitians milling in the capital's center speaking Creole while scratching out a living as street vendors and low-level construction workers. "How can we afford to keep all these people," he said.
In one of his first acts upon taking office this year, conservative President Sebastian Piñera clamped visa requirements on Haitians who had been allowed unimpeded entry by the previous socialist government.
This year's election is the first in which immigration was an issue in Chile, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
Anti-immigration politician Jose Antonio Kast, who wanted to build walls along Chile's borders with Bolivia and Peru, emerged as a maverick candidate in last November's first-round voting, scoring nearly 10 percent of the vote.
His last-minute endorsement of Piñera was considered critical in securing the conservative win. According to recent opinion surveys, 76 percent of Chileans back tougher measures on immigration.
Some Haitians fear a backlash. Modeline Simois, who has worked as a cleaning woman on public buses since her arrival two years ago, said she was recently fired from her job "so that they could give it to Chileans."
But Piñera has also legalized the status of an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants.
His top officials don't want to be associated with the hard-line positions taken by U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Chile is not thinking of building a wall or separating families. We want an open policy with effective controls," interior minister Andres Chadwyk told VOA.
Opposition parties who retain a majority in Congress are resisting legislation introduced by the government to restrict entry of migrants and limit their access to state benefits.
Socialist lawmaker Catalina Perez said the proposed measures violate international agreements on freedom of movement and human rights.
Social welfare officials are calling for more public investment to deal with the "immigration phenomenon."
"We lack the resources and experience," said Delgado, who wants "special efforts" to integrate new arrivals so as to prevent their "social alienation," which could feed crime and gang violence.
Preferential access to public services is depriving Chileans of limited spaces. When Claudia Sepulveda, a single mother of two, tried placing her 5-year-old daughter in the local nursery last month, she was put on a long waiting list because priority went to immigrants.
"I was told by the principal that immigrants were being given preferential placing, especially Haitians, because they were considered the most vulnerable," said Sepulveda, who said she will vote for Kast in the next elections. "Chile is like a thin cow being milked by a lot of foreigners."