Union Tribune

August 5, 2002 

Flow of Brazilians to U.S. a growing trend
Economic, political troubles cited in immigration increase


WASHINGTON – Jose Ferreira Defreitas expected to be in Boston by
now, after a long journey from Brazil that included sneaking across the U.S. bo rder near San Diego and then traveling to Massachusetts, home to some 200,000 Brazilians.

But the smuggler who crammed Defreitas into a van with another
Brazilian and 31 Mexicans, drove the wrong way on Interstate 8 and
into a head-on collision. Six people died and dozens of others –
including Defreitas – were injured.

The June 24 crash highlighted an immigration trend that has been
quietly building for a generation: A growing number of Brazilians are
moving to the United States, and those who can't get here legally are often willing to take the clandestine route across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The annual number of Brazilians detained by U.S. immigration agents jumped from 439 in 1997 to 3,485 in 2001, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics.

Though the U.S. Brazilian population is relatively small – just 500,000 to 800,000 – experts say economic and political forces and
expanding immigrant networks are likely to push that number higher.

"The Brazilian economy isn't in good shape; there's high
unemployment, and too many jobs don't pay a decent salary," said
University of Florida anthropologist Maxine Margolis. Her book on
Brazilian immigrants in New York, "Invisible Minority," tells of their
rapid but inconspicuous growth there.

"A very high percentage are undocumented, and the undocumented
generally are not willing to stand up and be counted," Margolis said.

Another reason for their seeming invisibility, she said, is that
Americans tend to know little of Brazil and lump in Brazilians with
other immigrants from Latin America.

"They don't know if we're Hispanic or not," said Jaroslav Pribyl, editor of the Brazilian Pacific News, a monthly newspaper in Point Loma that serves San Diego's approximately 10,000 Brazilians. "We're Latin for sure, but we're not Hispanic. The difference is the language. We speak Portuguese."

Pribyl, 49, has been following the surge of Brazilians crossing the
border illegally through San Diego – and watching as they move on to the East Coast, where they settle in cities with large
Portuguese-speaking communities.

"Like many of the Mexicans who come here, they have nothing to lose," he said. "They're going to try any way they can to make their lives better, not knowing the dangers."

Potential lost

For Brazil, emigration is a recent phenomenon.

For most of the 20th century, Brazil welcomed immigrants from
around the world. Blessed with natural resources, sensing that destiny called them to be the hemisphere's second superpower, the country industrialized and boomed. Even now, Brazilian airplanes – not coffee – are the principal export to the United States.

"Brazil is a fantastic country with tremendous potential that should be attracting people, not losing them," said professor Thomas Skidmore, a Brazil expert at Brown University.

But as the population ballooned from 17 million in 1900 to about 170 million today, that promise wilted, and some Brazilians began voting with their feet. They are leaving a country that is wracked by crime, one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor, and political tensions that have made a leftist candidate the favorite in October's presidential election.

While some emigrants are seeking opportunity in neighboring
Paraguay and others head to Europe, the largest group is pulled
northward by the allure of the dollar and legendary stories of
countrymen who have fled north for a new life.

Making connections

"A lot of people come here thinking they will just stay for a while," said Rodrigo Merheb of the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago. "But then they start families and make connections and never go back."

That pattern – pragmatism prevailing over the yearning for home – is a classic story of immigration to the United States. So is Merheb's description of the networks that build gradually between communities in Brazil and communities in the United States.

"First one person comes, and then a brother; then a cousin comes and he brings a friend," he said.

At the urging of the United States, Mexican immigration officials have stepped up their efforts to intercept immigrants who come to Mexico in order to have access to the border.

Luis Terαn, the top Mexican immigration official in the border state of Sonora, tells of detaining groups of Brazilians – a dozen or more at a time – as they prepare to make the jump into Arizona.

"If we can detect that they are preparing to cross, that means they
have violated their permission" to come to Mexico as tourists, Terαn
said. "So that is a reason to detain them."

Change in tactics

Attempts to enter the United States through Mexico are on the rise
because the preferred route – a plane ride to Boston, New York, Miami or Los Angeles – often isn't available.

A plane ride requires a visa, and U.S. Consulate officials have become reluctant to grant visas to those they suspect will disappear into the immigrant communities that have developed along the East Coast and in California from San Diego to San Francisco. Brazilian enclaves are sprouting in Houston and Chicago as well.

"Whenever people can't show some basic things – financial ties,
property, strong ties that would probably compel them to return
home after a visit – they aren't going to be likely to qualify for a visa," said State Dept. spokesman Ed Vasquez.

Consular officials are especially wary of Brazilians applying from the
state of Minas Gerais, particularly the city of Governador Valadares,
because so many residents have resettled illegally in the United States. So much of its economy has been built with dolares, or dollars, sent back from the United States that the city is widely known as Governador Valadolares.

Heavy flows of Brazilian immigrants began in the 1980s, as the country was hit by hyperinflation. In 1990, when the government froze bank accounts, disillusionment spread and word got out – particularly in the middle class – that Brazilians could blend comfortably into New England's large Portuguese-American communities.

A way out, up

Brazilians who feel economically trapped see the United States as a
way out and up, said Brazilian economist Paulo Viera da Cunha, senior Latin American economist at Lehman Brothers in New York. "In the United States, they really can achieve the kind of upward mobility they want."

Paulo Almedia, a spokesman for the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, said many immigrants with an entrepreneurial bent have flourished.

"A lot of immigrants in New York started to work as shoe polishers," he said. "Then maybe they started a shop. Then some opened restaurants. Then you have a whole set of Brazilians working for other Brazilians."

Some of those entrepreneurs end up in San Diego, which has a Brazilian chamber of commerce and hosts many Brazilian events, including an annual Carnaval festival and most recently a World Cup celebration.

Most of San Diego's Brazilians moved from other parts of the United
States, said Pribyl, the newspaper editor. His parents moved from
Brazil to New Jersey when he was 16. He moved to San Diego with his wife six years ago.

"A lot of people from the East Coast are coming down to start
businesses," he said. "But the main thing is the weather. Brazilian
people are fond of good sunshine and good beaches." 

Raquel De Suza, who with her husband owns the Grill from Ipanema
restaurant in Washington, D.C., says many want to escape the crime and fear of Brazil's turbulent big cities.

"We have crime here, but it's not like in Brazil," she said. "Here you can see a beautiful house without a fence. In Brazil, if you build a big house, you need a big fence and big dogs to protect you."

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has carried the Workers Party banner to the front of Brazil's presidential race, has tapped into a deep well of discontent over the vast gap between rich and poor. The Brazilian currency, the real, has lost about a third of its value against the dollar since March, bringing more economic hardship to many.

Marcelo Gaspar, a young Brazilian bartender at Washington's La Vida Loca restaurant, says he has no doubt what will happen if the Brazilian economy continues to slide.

"You're going to see even more people coming up here," he said. "No doubt about it."

Staff writer Leonel Sanchez contributed to this story.

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com