Luis Eduardo Thayer
Member of the National Council on Migration, Foreign Relations Department
Chair on Contemporary Racisms and Migrations, Universidad de Chile
Translated by Natalia Tranchino
Perhaps like no other area of state action, immigration policy defines the contours and content of democracy itself, because immigrants test the promise of a system based on egalitarian access to rights for the inhabitants of a territory. In this sense, the tension between immigrants and a democratic state is grounded on the institutionalization of the very status of immigrants as a series of restrictions and conditions, which differentiate it from citizenship. This implies that precarious access to rights on behalf of immigrants goes beyond the social exclusion they face, along with other social groups like sexual minorities, indigenous peoples, poor women, young people marginalized from the educational system, etc. It also contemplates a normatively produced series of rules, which institutionalizes the conditions for that exclusion.
Thus, immigration policy tends to move between, on the one hand, the reduction to a minimum of these rules, and how long migrants have to live with them, and the creation of a normative and institutional framework capable of turning the precariousness of their access to rights into a permanent situation. The measures taken by the Sebastián Piñera government in these last weeks, as well as the legislative bill reactivated in the Congress, has put Chile in the second scenario, thus aligning us with the restrictive policies of the most important host countries in Europe and North America, which have been encouraging them for several years now.
A couple of years ago, in 2015, we witnessed tragic images spread by mass media in which hundreds of migrants and refugees who, in their attempt to get to Europe, died in the Mediterranean Sea while those that were lucky enough to reach the coast were jailed in detention centers, attended by humanitarian organizations or brutally repressed by the police. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between 2014 and 2016 more than 10,000 people died in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe. Nevertheless, this figure, which illustrates what the media calls the “migratory crisis”, does not give account of a new reality but rather exposes the intensification of a situation that has been happening for at least three decades at European and American borders. So nothing actually began in 2015; rather, it was the year when we crossed the threshold of tolerance of what, until then, was considered by the West as “the normal” context for border repression. This entailed a redefinition of the rules of the game, and the limits in relation to how these states dealt with immigrants coming from the third world.
Although democracy, since its beginnings, has been built upon social exclusion and differentiation between citizens and noncitizens, the advent of human rights in the second half of the 20th century was a watershed moment that challenged this principle of exclusion in relation to the institutional construction of democracy. As such, border repression does not primarily contradict the original notion of democracy, but it corrodes the specific form of democracy the West decided to embrace since the end of World War II. The crisis in question, which that repression made visible, was not, accordingly, a crisis in democracy as such, since democracy has historically been based on the exclusion of different groups: women, slaves, plebeians, indigenous peoples, the poor, and certainly foreigners. Rather, what came to a crisis point was a more contemporary form of democracy, which has attempted to lay its foundations upon universal human rights.
The escalation of border repression that has been taking place since the early 21st century in Europe and in the US, and to which the Chilean right wing has enthusiastically adopted as well, represents the radicalization of a state policy encouraged continually and systematically since the last quarter of the 20th century, and specifically since the 1980’s. The coarseness and visibility of this policy came together in 2015, and this represented the high point of a repressive migratory policy that has been consistent for three decades, and which, with certain nuances, the vast majority of the developed host countries have applied.
The humanitarian crisis all across Mexico, from south to north, which some have defined as the vertical border that is exemplified by the gruesome route of “la bestia”, the cargo train used by thousands of Central American migrants who seek to cross clandestinely into the United States, or the massive death toll left by the boats packed with migrants on their way to the sea lanes of the Mediterranean, are nothing but derived consequences of the repression and the direct violence exerted by host countries against the immigrants that try to cross their borders. Generally, security and border control policies partially achieve their objective of reducing immigrant access. However, they also help to increase deaths on migration routes and they sustain human traffic networks. Also, they increase the irregularity and the violation of immigrants’ rights, raise the cost of the transfers and contribute to the stigmatization of immigrants that already live in the host countries, as well as the incoming immigrants that live as illegal residents, which leads to discrimination and racism in the receiving societies. Consequently, the border security policies activate a complex system of incentives for continued migratory insecurity.
Restrictive policies have familiar consequences for the immigrant insertion process; they make interaction with the local population difficult, and make precarious their insertion into the labor market. What some have called “the need for unwanted immigrants paradox” seeks to give account of the contradictions governments are faced with. On the one hand, governments must respond to the demand for restrictions on the part of a misinformed society, frightened by the speed of the migratory processes, and on the other hand they have to satisfy the structural demand for immigrant workers for the reproduction of profit margins of very significant economic sectors, such as agriculture, construction, the hotel industry or personal services, among others.
These two directions that coexist in the public response to immigration have their origin in the contradiction between the number of immigrants the citizens of host countries are willing to tolerate and the number of immigrants their economies demand. In this sense, it is possible to distinguish public policies that are implemented as an answer to the expectations the local population has and others that are aimed at responding to the economic demand expressed in the structural needs of the labor market, and the political pressure exerted by sectoral labor unions. Thus, the migratory policy turns into a two-headed beast; one head depends on the expectations of the population and the other on the structural demands of the labor market and the productive apparatus. The policy of border repression has the “virtue” of responding to both demands and joining both heads: on the one hand it tranquilizes the national population and their fears, and on the other it institutionalizes the conditions of precarization of the immigrant population, which guarantees their exploitation in the labor market.
Predictably, the duality between conditions of production of the migratory flows and the willingness to accept immigrants will be maximized in the short run. And this is because neither the host countries seem to be targeting their policies towards the recovery of the foundation of human rights for their democracies, nor the reproduction conditions of the flows are likely to be modified in the next years. The reproduction of the tension between the structural conditions that stimulate the migratory flows, state repression in the border seeking to restrain them and the needs of local business for maintaining profit margins at the cost of a precarious labor force are leading to the consolidation of the ultimate human rights crisis as a landmark for the coexistence and the construction of western democracies. With the definition of its migratory policy, Chile has entered this stream of violence and nationalist mistreatment as an advantaged apprentice. For those who are committed to the construction of a public space based on human rights and who consider that the fact of being born under certain social conditions on either side of the border should not determine people’s fate, we have a major responsibility in organizing a challenge to this state of affairs, which is consolidating itself against the principles of justice, as well as against the essential protection and self-determination of human life.