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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Speaking of Brazil

In addition to the previous post, did you know that Brazilians are now the most common nationality in the 'Other Than Mexican' category of illegal immigrants detained on the southern US border?

Encouraged by highly organized groups of smugglers offering relatively cheap packages, Brazilians recently have been migrating in record numbers to the United States.

With direct entry to the United States tougher than in the past, more often than not their route of choice is through Mexico, which in recent years has stopped requiring entry visas of Brazilians.

During just two days in late April, Border Patrol agents in south Texas detained 232 Brazilians who had entered the United States illegally. All told, more than 12,000 Brazilians have been apprehended trying to cross the United States-Mexican border this year, exceeding the number detained in all of 2004 and pushing Brazilians to the top of the category known as "other than Mexicans."

Mexico, facing growing complaints from Washington, is now contemplating restoring visa formalities for Brazilians. That in turn has led to a fever among potential migrants here in the vast heartland of south-central Brazil to obtain a passport and head for Mexico before the door there starts swinging shut.

At the Federal Police office in Governador Valadares, the main city in this fertile region of rolling hills, the line of people seeking passports each day stretches around the block.

What is interesting about this is that Brazil has never really been a big source of migrants to the United States; indeed, in the late 19th century Brazil and its neighbors Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina received millions of European migrants (indeed, the Italian impact on Argentina was much more pronounced than it was on the United States). Now, however, this seems to be reversing itself, with a big increase in Brazilian migration to the United States. The neighborhood where I live, Astoria, is probably the center of the Brazilian community in New York City, although by no means are Brazilians a dominant presence in the area (for instance at the local bar I drink at the regulars include Moroccans, Puerto Ricans, and white Americans from Greek, Italian, Jewish, and other backgrounds). Brazilians have also been moving in sizeable numbers into older Portuguese-American enclaves like The Ironbound in Newark.

Brazil has a notoriously wide wealth gap, with massive inequalities in income distribution between different social classes and regions. Yet it is not the poorest Brazilians who are migrating, as is mentioned on the second page of the New York Times article:

"Just look at who our president is," Teresa Sales, the author of "Brazilians Far From Home" and a professor of sociology at the University of Campinas, said, referring to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former lathe operator. "In the past, even when things were going badly no one would have imagined leaving the country, because of the expectation of rising socially."

Not only that, but Brazil's economy has been doing well recently. Furthermore, many of those leaving are not poor peasants, but young people more educated than the general population, including architects, engineers and other professionals.

"What we have to accept that this flow has to do with lack of opportunity, not with poverty or unemployment," said Ana Cristina Braga Martes, a specialist in immigration issues at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a leading research institution. "It's mainly the lower middle class from prosperous states, not the poor, who are going, and it's because they can't earn a fair wage here and have bought into the idea of the American dream."

This is not particularly surprising, actually, as traditionally it has not been the poorest of the poor who have emigrated to the United States. For instance, the Irish who emigrated to America in such huge numbers in the 19th Century were generally not from the poorest regions and sectors of Irish society; the poorest of the poor could not afford to leave Ireland at all, and the poorest of the migrants could only make it as far as Great Britain (although some would ultimately move on to to America). Thus, although in comparison to the American population at large, Irish immigrants were (often desperately) poor, they were not actually the most miserable, wretched specimens of Irishness. This pattern can be seen over and over in the decades following the Irish migration, in all sorts of immigrant groups, whether the Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Italians, and so on. And so this today appears to be the case with Brazilian immigrants, whether illegal or legal (I don't like the current trendy liberal term of 'undocumented migrants'...did these people just forget to fill out some forms or what?).

What is unique, actually, is Mexican immigration, both in its scale, and in the forms that it takes, and in the sort of regions that Mexican immigrants are coming to the US from. Never before has a single country so dominated mass immigration in America; not even at the height of the German and Irish migrations to America did those nations provide as high a percentage of total immigrants as Mexico does today. Central American immigrants (who are overwhelmingly Mexican) have the least education, the largest families, the least likelihood to be in professional occupations, and the lowest wages of any immigrant cohort in the United States. The sheer size of the Mexican diaspora in the United States, and the advantage that Mexicans enjoy over other immigrant groups in terms of proximity to the United States, means that Mexican immigration can be drawn from further down the social scale than is the case in other immigrant-sending countries.

|| RPH || 8:45 PM || |