SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Lawmakers approved late on Thursday a bill that overhauls Chile’s immigration rules and the service that oversees them, ahead of an anticipated surge in arrivals from abroad as the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
The center-right government of president Sebastian Pinera, a proponent of the measure, had urged lawmakers to fast-track the legislation, which creates a new, beefed up Immigration Service, establishes new qualifications for entry and ratchets up sanctions against illegal immigrants.
The bill was approved by 38-2 in Chile’s Senate and now awaits Pinera’s signature. It offers special protection to refugees from countries where they may be persecuted, as well as to pregnant women and victims of trafficking or domestic abuse.
The legislation also allows any migrant who entered Chile prior to March 18, 2020 – shortly after the pandemic struck – a period of 180 days to formalize their immigration status within the country.
Chile, the world’s top copper producer, has in recent years become a magnet for migrants from poorer Latin American countries, notably Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Peru.
That has sparking concerns among some Chileans about illegal immigration and the loss of local jobs to foreigners.
Some lawmakers say the bill approved on Thursday does not go far enough to protect the rights of children and migrant workers, and have threatened to take those arguments to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal.
As Latin America’s richest country in terms of GDP per head, according to IMF figures, Chile is among the continent’s most attractive destinations for migrants. More than one million people have migrated there since 2014, bringing the foreign-born population to 1.5 million, according to government figures.
A Department of Migration report this year predicted that migrant numbers could increase further to 250,000 a year once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, pointing to an International Monetary Fund report that suggested Chile’s economy would rebound quicker than most.
(Reporting by Fabian Cambero, writing by Dave Sherwood; editing by John Stonestreet)