SANTIAGO, Chile —
Seven years ago, Widenska Andre’s father sent her a plane ticket to relocate to his adopted homeland — Chile, where he was among a fast-growing population of Haitian immigrants.
Andre, 21, today has permanent residence in the South American nation and a steady job helping migrants in Santiago, the capital. Still, she contemplated joining an ongoing exodus of fellow Haitians from Chile to the United States.
“Who doesn’t want to live the American dream?” Andre, who has six siblings living in Chile, said recently.
Because she is doing well, Andre ultimately decided to remain in Chile when three of her cousins, also in their 20s, embarked on the more than 4,000-mile journey north.
Chile, a country of 19 million people, was previously home to many, if not most, of the thousands of Haitian migrants whose presence at a now-cleared encampment in Del Rio, Texas, dramatized the immigration challenges facing the Biden administration.
Chile has long boasted one of the region’s most robust economies — and also hosts one of the world’s largest Haitian diasporas.
Haitians began to immigrate in large numbers to South America — mostly to Chile and Brazil — in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated their Caribbean country, killing tens of thousands and further battering the economy in a nation that has long been among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2012, fewer than 2,000 Haitians resided in Chile, according to official statistics. Since then, the Haitian presence has increased almost a hundredfold. At the end of 2020, according to an official government estimate, more than 182,000 Haitians lived in Chile.
Plentiful work and a previously relaxed visa system drew them to the country.
Haitians mostly settled in the environs of Santiago, generally residing in working-class districts, often in cramped housing. They typically staffed low-paying jobs in restaurants, hotels, construction, maintenance and factories, while also working as street vendors. Even if earning Chile’s minimum wage — about $430 a month — Haitians in Chile generally did better than compatriots in Haiti, where the average monthly wage is about $100.
While many Haitians in Chile struggle, others have prospered, opening businesses and becoming part of the fabric of Chilean society — even as they say they often face discrimination in a nation where most residents have European or Indigenous roots. The Haitian influx represented contemporary Chile’s first major Black demographic presence. Unlike the United States, Brazil and many Caribbean nations, Chile never had a large-scale African slave population.
A 2019 government survey found that almost half of Haitian respondents in Chile said they had experienced discrimination because of their race or inability to speak Spanish. Several high-profile incidents — including the fatal police shooting in August of a Haitian man in the central Chilean city of La Ligua — have sparked allegations of racism.
“I’d have already fled to the United States if it weren’t for my husband, who likes Chile,” said Aline Phanor, 29, a Haitian nursing technician who said that a dissatisfied client had recently used a racial epithet and threatened to “ruin my life.”
She said she tried to file a complaint with police, but officers refused to take her statement.
Haitians in Chile have endeavored to maintain their cultural legacy. Andre was crowned “Miss Haiti in Chile” in 2019 in a community beauty pageant.
“There is a hidden racism in Chile, and I wanted to show a positive image of Haitian women,” said Andre, who works for a municipal government migrant aid agency and is fluent in Spanish. “In Chile, people think that Haitian women are ugly. When they see and hear me, they say, ‘You don’t look Haitian,’ or, ‘You don’t sound Haitian.’ Which is wrong because I am Haitian and I am proud of it.”
But discrimination alone doesn’t explain why thousands of Haitians abandoned Chile in recent months to embark on extremely hazardous journeys through South and Central America and Mexico. Economics appears to be the engine driving the migration.
Haitians interviewed in recent weeks in Chile, Mexico and Colombia say Chile’s prosperity often seemed out of reach to them for a variety of reasons. The challenges include language barriers (Haitian Creole and French are Haiti’s official languages); increasingly tight visa restrictions; and the pandemic-driven economic downturn that has cost Chile millions of jobs, many in the service and construction sectors that are key employment hubs for Haitians.
“It was very hard to find work” in Chile, said Jean Edelince, 36, who, along with his wife and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, was among thousands of U.S.-bound Haitians in southern Mexico.
“And Chile is very expensive — much more expensive than Mexico,” said Edelince, who resided for four years in Chile, working most recently in a plastics factory, before embarking north this year.
Haitians have been trickling out of South America bound for the United States for a number of years. But the lifting of pandemic-era travel restrictions — at a moment when South American economies were struggling to recover — helped prompt record numbers to head north this year. A major catalyst appears to have been a widespread perception that a new White House occupant had opened the door to Haitians.
Many Haitians have relatives in the United States, which is home to the world’s largest Haitian diaspora — more than 700,000 strong. Commentary spread by word of mouth and on internet chat groups suggested that the Biden administration was allowing Haitian asylum seekers to gain a foothold in the United States — especially if they arrived at the southwest border with small children.
“I heard that with Biden it was easier for pregnant women and families with children to enter the United States,” Andre said.
Unlike Andre, about half the Haitians residing in Chile lack permanent residence. They face highly restricted job prospects. Many are forced to seek work in informal sectors where employers often pay below the legal minimum wage.
The right-center government of President Sebastián Piñera — responding to an anti-immigrant backlash among many Chileans — has tightened rules to make it harder for Haitians and other immigrants to attain permanent residence.
“We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of people who do not respect our migration law to continue entering Chile,” Piñera said in April 2018. “They pretend to be tourists even though they’re not.”
Haitians who were once allowed to enter Chile with only a passport — and were readily able to find work in the previously booming economy — now must acquire visas before arriving in Chile. They also need hard-to-get police clearances from Haiti, attesting that they have no potentially disqualifying criminal record, before becoming eligible for residence.
“There has been a failure of public policies to include Haitians, which has to do with the language barrier, with social and employment discrimination, and also with racism,” said Waleska Ureta, director of the Jesuit Migrant Service, a nonprofit Roman Catholic aid group.
In 2018 and 2019, Chile instituted a program of voluntary return for Haitians. A total of 1,384 flew back to Haiti on nine flights that the government lauded as a “humanitarian” gesture — though critics denounced what they called a thinly disguised coerced repatriation.
Chilean officials say they have not forcibly removed Haitians back to their troubled homeland, where the president was assassinated in July and an earthquake struck in August. (The United States recently expelled hundreds of Haitian migrants.)
Unrealistic expectations among many migrants help explain the mass out-migration of Haitians from Chile, according to Chile’s government.
“I think the difficulties they [Haitians] have faced are related with other factors but not race,” Alvaro Bellolio, Chile’s top immigration official, told The Times. “There was a high number who believed that it was easy to make large sums of money working in informal jobs, and reality shows that this is not the case in our country.”
Evens Clercema has not made a fortune in Chile, but he appreciates his adopted homeland.
“I had some difficulties integrating into society, but that would have happened to me anywhere in the world,” said Clercema, 40, a Haitian dancer who arrived in Chile in 2009 to study sociology.
Many in Chile recall Clercema as the Haitian who, along with Chilean dancers, performed la cueca, Chile’s national dance, before then-President Michelle Bachelet in 2017.
He later made television appearances and now gives dance classes at a rented studio. He has since acquired Chilean citizenship, one of only 170 Haitians who have taken that step since 2010, the government says.
“I am fortunate because living from dance is difficult, even as a Chilean,” Clercema said late last month as he greeted students in the middle-class Santiago neighborhood of Ñuñoa. “There is racism here, but it is often associated with poverty. Still, things have turned out well for me…. I don’t feel like living anywhere else. And immigrating to the United States illegally is not an option for me.”
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Tapachula, Mexico, and Necoclí, Colombia. Poblete, a special correspondent, reported from Santiago.