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The Bureaucratic Politics of Legal Reform: Chile as an Exceptional Case


This study is intended to gain a better understanding of the process of law-making in a presidentially-centric governmental structure, where the president holds legislative prerogatives. When a president retains and controls legislative priorities, participation in the making of laws is restricted to those actors who are close to the president or who hold positions of authority inside the executive. And in either case, to those whom they consult or invite to contribute, at their discretion.

Despite pervasive regional reform of immigration laws and policies in South America, Chile continues to regulate its own immigration with a statute that dates back to the now-discredited military junta of the 1970s and 1980s. This lack of reform in immigration law by Chile is puzzling considering Chilean reform and participation in a variety of other legal reforms which strengthened the country’s free trade, human rights commitments, strong civil society, and liberal political order.

Unlike what has happened in the liberal democracies of the North, immigration policies in Chile have emerged out of bureaucrats’ understandings about the role of the government in the management of immigration and their relative positions of authority and informal social connections inside the governmental structure. More specifically, high-ranking officials desire to maintain control over immigration law and policy, together with their hierarchical position inside the bureaucracy, have restricted mid-level bureaucrats’ attempts for comprehensive legal change at the presidential level. Change has occurred from the middle-out instead of the top-down. In the day-to-day implementation of policies, mid-level bureaucrats have created a reservoir of administrative practices, modifying the status quo and limiting top-officials’ reformist actions.

The study builds on an in-depth, ethnographic case study of immigration policies in Chile developed between 2014 and 2016 during which time I spent twelve months acting as an active policy advisor to the Head of the Department of Immigration. I complemented my participant observation with 71 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with central and local public officials, congressional representatives, international organizations, pro-immigrants’ organizations, public interest lawyers, academics, and representatives from Chilean economic guilds. I further supplemented my fieldwork with evidence from official policy and legal documents and other secondary data.

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