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Brazil's Immigrant Song

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From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue "Europe Under Fire"

By Fernanda Canofre

BRASÍLIA, Brazil—Sulemana Adamu, 27, was born and lived most of his life in Accra, the capital of Ghana and the 11th largest city in Africa. He used to spend most of his days fixing computers as an IT technician and playing with friends in a drums quartet. Sensing no real opportunity in his country’s decaying economy, Sulemana saved for 18 months, planning a long trip to seek his fortune somewhere else.               

Shakir Hussain, 29, was born and lived most of his life in Sylhet, a district of Bangladesh surrounded by tea estates with a population of 500,000 inhabitants—a number that scarcely registers in one of the most populous countries on earth. For a while Shakir worked at a phone company, then dropped out to help his father and brother with their small construction business. But money was scarce and when the Bangladesh Awami League arrived in power, political persecution started as well. At the age of 24, Shakir spoke to his parents and, with their financial help, packed his bags for Latin America.

Cosme Sousa, 33, was born and lived most of his life in São João do Carú, a town with barely 15,000 inhabitants in Maranhão, one of the poorest states in Brazil, located at its northeastern tip. For eight years he taught geography and history at the local elementary school. The money was never sufficient to support his two children and his wife. With the chance of earning a better income cultivating pepper crops in the neighboring state of Pará, he left his hometown for the first time. It only lasted eight months. Back home, money continued to be a problem, until he heard about a job opportunity 2,500 miles away.

All three ended up in Nova Araçá, Rio Grande do Sul, a small town in southern Brazil. In the past year, the village of 4,003 people, surrounded by hills, forests and crops, has become a symbol of the new migrations movement that has been shifting the Brazilian landscape. To understand its scale, a visitor has only to walk three blocks from the highway through the cobblestone streets, down a gentle hill, before arriving at the central square and the main church. The three new arrivals—Sulemana, Shakir, and Cosme are among the thousand who’ve followed job opportunities here. Most—if not all—“outsiders” in Araçá work at a meatpacking plant named Nicolini. Some are in the slaughterhouse, others at packing or distribution units. With the growing demand for Brazilian meat in Africa and Islamic countries, the demand for Muslim workers to perform so-called Islamic slaughter has increased. Companies have had to create hundreds of new jobs.

But that is not all. After leaving the UN’s World Map of Hunger for the first time in its history, Brazil has become a new destination for immigrants worldwide.

SURVIVING MELTDOWN

While the world economy suffered through the 2008 crisis, despite some struggles, Brazil seems to have coped well enough. In 2011, the country achieved its historically lowest unemployment rate of 4.6 percent. The same year, France registered 9.6 percent unemployment, Italy 8.4 percent, and Spain hit its highest rate in 17 years at 22.8 percent. Brazil, still considered an emerging economy, began attracting migrants who were finding few opportunities in Europe’s decaying economies. In fact, Brazil’s 2010 census showed that during the previous decade the number of immigrants living for more than five years in the country had almost doubled. But with all the changes in the immigration scene, beginning in 2009, this percentage has begun to lag.

The first eight years of rule by the leftist Workers Party stitched some important changes into Brazil’s social fabric. Many social programs improved or created by the government, such as Bolsa Família—where the government pays families to maintain their children at school—have created a new phenomenon in the country: a rising middle class. A 2010 study by Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), one of the most important economic institutes in the country, shows that while in the United States the middle class represented 53 percent of the population, in Brazil the number had reached 43 percent. Now, the middle class represents the majority of the population. This ascendance of millions of Brazilians has also created a new group of consumers for the market, moving the national economy forward. Even with the country’s recent economic stagnation, low unemployment and the expanding middle class proved to be a winning combination for President Dilma Rousseff against the opposition during the 2014 presidential elections.

For Brazilians, this redesigned socio-economic structure slowed the rural exodus and migration from the northeastern region to the southeast. For immigrants, it gave them a new option for employment. However, the numbers presented by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), showing such a dramatic increase of immigrants in Brazil, fail to take into consideration the large numbers of African immigrants arriving in Brazil and living here for less than five years. According to documents from the Federal Police, from 2000 to 2012, the number of such African immigrants soared some 30-fold. Officially, the Brazilian Federal Police has registered 18,670 citizens from several African nations, far fewer than the 32,205 Germans or 35,266 U.S. citizens. Since many immigrants enter the country illegally, the real number is likely to be much higher. Without any job contract—required by Brazil for an entry visa or for extended residency in Brazil—almost all the arriving Africans are trying an alternative to legalize their situation in the country: the refugee protocol.

LIFE IN NOVA ARAÇÁ

When Sulemana sits down on a bench at Nova Araçá’s central square to talk, it’s nearly two months since his arrival in Brazil. He is one of hundreds of Ghanaians who arrived here with tourist visas to watch the World Cup, but he has decided to try to make a living in Brazil. While some of his compatriots chose to stay in Brasília, São Paulo, Criciúma, and other cities, Sulemana and 600 more Ghanaians have taken a chance on Caxias do Sul in Rio Grande do Sul. One of the coldest places in Brazil, frequently registering below freezing temperatures, they’d arrived in the middle of the winter. Most have barely enough clothes to keep themselves warm. With no place to stay, while waiting for appointments at the Federal Police local bureau to fill their requests for refugee status, the immigrants have been sheltered at a sports gym owned by the Catholic Church. Mattresses, food, and other donations are all provided by the local community. “We felt really welcome there. 90 percent of the people of Caxias are very friendly, very friendly. The other 10 percent—they do not count,” says Abbas, a friend of Sulemana, who is now his roommate in Nova Araçá.

Abbas also came to Brazil with his mind already made up to stay. He first arrived in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte in the northeastern region. There he heard about a city called Criciúma, Santa Catarina, 2,635 miles south, a two-day ride inside a bus. With no luck in Santa Catarina, and running out of money, Abbas continued to Rio Grande do Sul when he ended up in Caxias. Along with many of his compatriots, he is now waiting approval of his formal refugee status. Without a job contract or a study visa, most of the immigrants coming from Africa and Haiti fill out a refugee form requesting a permanent visa. Once designated, immigrants then receive documentation affirming they are seeking refuge in Brazil, and are automatically entitled to ID documents and temporary employment cards, which allow them to work on the books while awaiting an official designation as individuals requesting residence. Usually, a refugee request takes a year to be processed by the Ministry of Justice.

Of some 400 Ghanaians who passed through Caxias between July and August, only six remain in the city. The rest have continued onward to other states or smaller towns, such as Nova Araçá. According to Denise Pessôa, a councilwoman in Caxias do Sul, the leading voice for immigrants inside the city government, there was another reason so many immigrants were attracted to the region. “People started to come from Criciuma, Santa Catarina, to Caxias to file their papers because while the police bureau there was giving immigrants asking for refugee [status] only six months to stay, here they were giving them a year,” Pessôa explains. “There is no uniformity in the Federal Police bureaus. We have forwarded a complaint to the Ministry of Justice to alert them.”

Though among the nations sending migrants to Brazil, Ghana is considered a country of high religious tolerance, with 71 percent of the population Catholic and 17 percent Muslim, many immigrants coming to Brazil claim to be victims of religious persecution. Others allege that they were harassed and persecuted for their sexual orientation. One city hall worker, who was helping immigrants to fill papers, said she was standing with a young man who claimed to have watched his entire family being slaughtered right in front of him. According to his story, ethnic rivalries were one of the main issues in the part of Ghana where he’d lived. Sulemana, however, doesn’t agree. “I think problems in Ghana are more personal,” he shrugs. “Since we are Muslims and a man can marry more than once, there are a lot of fights between wives and their children about money. Family problems are common there.”

Indeed, the vice-minister of information from Ghana, Felix Kwakye Ofosu, told a local Ghanaian radio station that many Ghanaians’ refugee requests are “completely false,” denying any sort of religious conflict in his country. Since Ghana has been subject neither to a civil war nor any natural disasters—as was the case with Haitians after the 2008 hurricane—claims of religious discrimination are the fastest route to a permanent visa.

DICTATORS' HERITAGE

The current Brazilian law for immigrants, known as Foreigner’s Statute, is yet another heritage of the dictatorship that ruled the country for 21 years. Signed by General João Figueiredo in 1980, during the last years of the regime, the statute puts immigration under the Homeland Safety Doctrine, as a national security matter. It was created in the spirit of the Cold War as a tool against the expansion of communism—which facilitated the establishment of most Latin American dictatorships of the period—and saw all foreigners as threats.

Rather than enumerate people from different cultures and origins, especially in an historically diverse country, the document was conceived as a way around any such designations. According to the law in Brazil, a foreigner is forbidden “to exercise any actions of a political active nature; to organize, create, or maintain any entities with political character, even if they are meant only for propaganda or diffusion, exclusively among compatriots, of ideas, programs, or actions of political parties from their original country; to organize parades, marches, rallies, and reunions of any kind, or to take part on them; (...) to represent any union or professional association.” The law also gives the Minister of Justice sweeping powers to expel from the country a foreigner who takes any action that might threaten national security or who begs or commits any crimes. And it forbids conferences, congresses, and art exhibitions held by foreigners. In short, it is one of the most draconian statutes in the Western Hemisphere. An immigrant is basically allowed to hold a job and raise a family, and nothing more.

The room where Sister Maria do Carmo Gonçalves works everyday at the Care Centre for Migrants in Caxias do Sul has piles of documents, representing 1000 refugee requests waiting to be evaluated—stories from people coming to Brazil, describing the languages they speak (Wolof, Hausa, French, English, Spanish), work experience, education, and cities of origin. The Sister’s two cell phones never stop ringing. Through Whatsapp messages, she follows the lives of immigrants who passed through the Center and are trying to make a living in Brazil. Some remember to thank Sister Maria for her care and attention. Others write to tell her about the difficulties they are facing with the job that seemed to hold the promise of a new, legal life on Brazilian soil. In short, Sister Maria has become a spokesperson for immigrants not only in the south, but throughout Brazil.

She explains that since there is no single pattern for solutions, many people take advantage, or use the refugee request as the only way to win legal permanence in Brazil. From 2012 to 2013, the number of refugee requests approved by the Brazilian government more than tripled, from 199 to 649. In 2010, the Ministry of Justice received 566 refuge requests. By October 2014, there were already 6,886 requests, more than the total of 6,721 approved refugees currently living in the country. The southern region is where the most of these requests are concentrated.

To understand this rapid growth, last year the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE) started a study to trace the profile of people who had their refugee status approved by the Brazilian government. The study is already concluded, but its publication was delayed because of the presidential election campaign. According to João Brígido, of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) and coordinator of the research, it confirms that Brazil has become a favorite destination for immigrants. Examining the cases of people from 79 countries whose requests were approved by the Ministry of Justice, IPEA found that 60 percent entered the country legally, 30 percent illegally, and 10 percent did not want to answer the question, fearing persecution. Most arrive by air. Those who tried to enter the country by land cross the Amazon, then head to São Paulo. Most are single men. Only 20 percent of those seeking refuge are women.

Brígido endorses Sister Maria’s point and underlines the gaps in the system that make refugee status so challenging. “In no other country can you get work and ID documents only through a protocol that states you are waiting for the approval of the process. It is a way of avoiding the system. Until someone checks your progress, you’re already inside the Brazilian work market,” he observes. Brígido points to the language as one of the main issues in a country where most of the people speak only Portuguese, but he also notes how the state receives these citizens once they are inserted into the Brazilian system. “The actions of protection and assistance defined by Brazil are too precarious. The immigrants are treated as regular Brazilians. They have access to services without being part of a quota, with no effort to differentiate them. This only makes their situation worse,” he says.

“We need to have a regulation for migrations. We cannot run to accommodate each group, every time,” says Sister Maria. “It is a constant and growing movement. If one looks to the international scenario, one sees how difficult the situation is. We now have a great contingent of Syrians and Palestinians seeking refuge. There is an entire public out there, people who may start to come to Brazil as well, because their own countries do not provide humane living conditions. That is a natural process to populations. Given a choice between dying on the Mediterranean shore and coming to Brazil, I would come to Brazil too.” In fact, according to the United Nations, in 2014, some 1,880 people have died trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.

LEGISLATING CHANGE

The exponential growth of immigrants has made it clear Brazil’s outdated law cannot adequately address today’s refugee flows. After a lengthy debate with several civil society organizations, in July 2013, the Ministry of Justice formed a commission comprising college professors, members of the ministry staff, jurists, specialists in human rights, and international and constitutional lawyers to work on drafting a new statute. Over the next year, the commission held seven drafting sessions, while its members also held events in several cities designed to open a dialogue with the community.

One commission member, Deisy Ventura, a professor at the International Relations Institute of the University of São Paulo, seemed to agree with Sister Maria, writing, “Brazilian migratory policy is obsolete and makes foreigners’ lives more difficult,” adding that the country’s current migratory policy is “fragmented, opaque, and haphazard.” Ventura also charges that the current law is both unconstitutional and incompatible with the human rights treaties signed by Brazil. “In the Brazilian case, there are antagonistic interests—from the market, which defends a selective immigration, parsing the workforce it needs at the moment only to discard it right after; the conservatives, who are only concerned in attracting wealth from foreign investors; to the police, who usually confuse foreigners with criminals; and even some sectors of the federal government, which prefer this poor law to an eventual loss of power, resources, or prestige,” she writes, explaining these issues are most responsible for flaws at the bureaucratic level. 

The new proposal still has a long way to go before it becomes a law. At the end of August, the text was delivered to José Eduardo Cardozo, the Minister of Justice, to the Presidency’s Human Rights Secretary and to the Ministries of Labor and Foreign Relations. After their approval, it will be forwarded to the National Secretary of Justice, to be drafted as a law. The process was delayed by the presidential elections. Though the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, a supporter of the new legislation, was re-elected, the process was delayed indefinitely. Still, it sets an important marker for the country as it deals with immigration.

The first change includes removal of the immigration issue from under the national security umbrella “to repair a historical debt of the country with its immigrants.” It also abandons references to those not born in Brazil as the pejorative “foreigners,” effectively second class citizens, instead referring to them as “migrants,” classifying them variously as “transitory, temporary, or permanent.” Transitory refers to tourists, businessmen, short-term stays, or visiting academics, while temporary or permanent refers to those seeking residence.

The new statute will also create a state organization to monitor migrants, especially on regulatory matters. For the Group for Assistance of Immigrants and Refugees from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (GAIRE/UFRGS), the creation of such an organization is one of the main central pivots. The pre-project can be a start to change the national immigration scenario, once this new tool is based on a vision from the human rights perspective and sees the immigrant as someone who adds to the country’s workforce. Finally, the law creates a National Migratory Authority, responsible for promoting immigrant issues. Today, this function is performed by the Federal Police, and generally fails to support good living conditions or defend this population.

But the proposed bill also highlights two other important questions. The first concerns confusion between natural migration and request for refuge. Failing to clarify these two distinct notions “converts humanitarian help into migratory policy, with severe consequences to the migrants, but also to the Brazilian State, which reduces citizenship to mere assistance,” the law observes. The second issue involves the failure of the bureaucracy to slow or stop migratory movements, putting immigrants’ lives at risk, leaving them susceptible to precarious work conditions.

“It is easy to get into Brazil, but it is hard to stay here and work regularly,” Ventura observes. “There are rights, but they are limited, and it is hard to exercise them. Rich people are welcome; poor people way less than that. Society gives a great deal of value to its ancestral immigrants, but rarely treats today’s immigrants as they would like to have had their grandparents treated decades ago.”

LITTLE EUROPE

The region where Caxias do Sul and Nova Araçá are situated is commonly called Sierra Gaucha. Its raw winters and rugged geography have made the Sierra famous as a sort of little Europe in Brazil, attracting thousands of tourists from different parts of the country experiencing snow often for the first time in their lives. One of the most European features about the Sierra, though, is the legacy of Italian culture brought by immigrants at the end of the 19th century. By 1875, Brazil was already independent, when the government launched a colonization policy to bring people to corners of the nation yet to be explored. European immigrants from Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, and other countries had their trans-Atlantic passage paid by the government as an incentive to start a new life in Brazil. Once they arrived, the imperial government had the lands surveyed and handed to the settlers. Today, walking through these cities, it’s still possible to hear Italian exclamations or Portuguese spoken with an Italian accent.

But there is another characteristic that has made the region of Caxias do Sul widely renowned in Brazil and abroad—its heavily industrialized heartland with some 2,200 companies including a host of corporate giants. One of the most important automotive parks in Latin America is located here with a bus industry that exports to 100 countries. In the last 20 years, the per capita income of Caxias has grown 69 percent annually, reaching 1,253.93 BRL, or nearly $600 in 2010. Those living in extreme poverty have been slashed from 0.9 percent to 0.36 percent of the population in the same period. The same is true for smaller towns in the countryside.

Migration has always been a deep and natural force within the Brazilian landscape. But in the last 15 years its nature has been changing. A study published by IBGE reveals that the level of migration between regions has been decreasing. São Paulo doesn’t attract as many workers as before, just as the northeastern population doesn’t emigrate to the south as they used to. The study further revealed a new phenomenon. Northeasterners living in the south and southeast are returning to their home states. Some experts credit this shift to the social policies implemented since the Workers Party first assumed control in 2003, with Luis Inácio Lula da Silva as president. Others attribute the reverse migration to the reduced demand for workers in industries.

Yet even with the reduction, Brazilians are still heading south. In February, Cosme traveled by bus for four days, leaving his home state of Maranhão, to work in Nova Araçá. Alongside Cosme were his brother, sister-in-law, and his wife, Odnaitules da Cunha Sousa, 27, together with some 600 others. Each came from Maranhão to the small southern town seeking a job opportunity at the meatpacking plant. “When I arrived here, there were already a handful of maranhenses [natives of Maranhão], but now there are a whole lot, and more people are coming,” says Cosme. “It’s not easy to gather the money to come, but those who are already here point them to job posts and lend the money to help. It’s hard to get a job in Maranhão. I think every state in Brazil now has maranhenses working.” He alone is responsible for bringing 20 people to work at the company.

Cosme is in charge of putting the meats into freezers. His wife is in the packaging section. His day begins at 4:30 p.m., and though it should end at 2 a.m., he usually works overtime until 5:30 a.m. “We get used to it, but it is not easy,” he says. Still, the money is enough to support the couple in Araçá and send some home to their two children, a 13-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, who live with his mother-in-law in Maranhão. They talk every day by phone, but Cosme says he has no plans to bring the children south. “It’s a little bit hard, but we have to work. Besides, they wouldn’t handle the cold. I suffered a lot through it as well,” he jokes.

One of his colleagues, Shakir, left his homeland, Bangladesh, for a different reason. He arrived in 2009, wanting to leave Bangladesh because of the delicate situation he found himself in with the new government. Since most of his father’s family lives in England, and his mother’s relatives are in the United States, he tried other countries before deciding on Brazil. “I’d never thought about Brazil before. I knew I wanted to go either to Europe or Latin America. When I told my father, he said I should leave Bangladesh,” Shakir says. Here, he lived in three different states—São Paulo, Paraná, and Rio Grande do Sul—and worked in different capacities. By the end of 2013, he met a man responsible for arranging contracts between companies and employees, who offered him the possibility of moving to Araçá permanently. He accepted.

Shakir is not alone. He has another 34 countrymen in the city, mostly for the same reasons. Although the journey is exhausting, virtually everyone insist it’s worth it. “I send money to my family, my parents, and my siblings. Truth is if one takes into consideration the economy of Bangladesh and the economy of Brazil, the Brazilian currency is more valuable. One hundred Brazilian reals here is 3,000 of our money back home. It doesn’t buy much, but while working here I make 1,000 real a month. There I would be making 600, maybe 500. For now, it is worth it,” Shakir explains, speaking in the Portuguese he’s managed to learn.

FITTING IN

The number of migrants arriving in Nova Araçá passed the 1,000 mark in the past year. Such a sudden increase in the town’s population has meant a new and unexpected burden on the local government. The city budget for education, health, and social services was calculated for a steady number of inhabitants. Cláudia Daniel, Araçá’s Health Secretary, echoes immigrant sentiment. “Since we have fierce winters, this new population has not adapted to abrupt temperature changes, causing frequent respiratory problems.” Another problem is the language. Only a few public health workers can speak English, and they are not always available to help to translate between doctors and patients. “We had to adapt the circumstances with computers and directing patients to employees who can speak other languages,” Daniel explains.

She also notes that until recently, Araçá rarely had many migrants. As such, houses were occupied by people who’d spent their entire lives in the town. There were few available to rent and no public shelters. The solution was for newcomers to share houses with others. Cosme and his wife live with another couple from Maranhão. Some Ghanaians and Bengalis live in houses rented for them by the company. The rent is deducted from their paychecks, though they have little understanding about market prices or the proportion of it. Since no one has any real idea how much it would cost to rent if they were paying themselves, without the company mediating, there is really no option. The company has their backs to the wall, particularly since the town itself has made no real estate properties available.

“The city is not prepared,” Cosme agrees. “The company has houses, but it is not enough. Private shelters are also overcrowded. There is one for men and another one for women, otherwise it becomes a mess. We have to keep an eye on it. When someone leaves, we tell others.” But he quickly points out that even with the difficulties the new arrivals are facing, the city government has always been helpful. “I know how to paint though I have never studied it before. It is a gift God gave to me,” he says solemnly. “But now I have a certificate to prove that I know” thanks to a free workshop offered by city hall.

ALL WORK, NO PLAY

It’s unlikely that all immigrants seeking refuge will have their requests approved by the Brazilian government. Still, until the official response comes, they can work and earn enough money to send some to their families back home. Often, the calls on Sister Maria’s cell phone are from employers looking for new workers. That is how 26 Ghanaians found their way to the meatpacking plant in Nova Araçá.

“I came here to start a new life,” says Mustafa Ibrahim, 27, who also lives with Abbas and Sulemana at a house rented by the company. He left a one-year-old daughter to try for some opportunities across the Atlantic. Although the money he earns is helping his family, Mustafa and his colleagues do not plan to stay for long. Since they arrived here, one event that’s become almost a weekly routine is the papers the company sends them to sign, all written in Portuguese. They have no idea what they are accepting. “They are using us. There is no future for us in Nova Araçá,” he sighs.

All the workers, regardless of their nationality, offer similar accounts of their work places. Despite the exhausting 10 hour work journey, which they pass almost entirely standing, with few or no breaks, the food they’re supplied is not enough to sustain them, and they are forbidden to bring snacks from home. If a worker feels sick, no matter the symptoms, the company’s infirmary will always prescribe the same medicine—paracetamol, a form of Tylenol. To avoid losing a day’s pay, they always return to their posts, no matter how ill they feel. On a holiday or weekend, the company often bargains with employees, offering double pay for those who volunteer. “Who is going to say no? Everyone here needs to be paid overtime,” one worker complains. “If it were up to them, we’d sleep in here as well.”

“Usually, where these people come from, a formal job is a rarity,” explains Pessôa. “Most worked in the informal market. They think they will arrive here and will begin to work. So, when they got here and no one gave them jobs without documents, it was a great frustration for them. Waiting a month or more, without a job, can you imagine what that’s like for them? They value the formal work. They do not change jobs frequently, unlike Brazilians who are always looking for better positions.” And this is why most immigrant workers just keep their heads down and mouths shut. 

According to Vânius Corte, a delegate-prosecutor at the Public Ministry of Labor, reports of workplace abuses are more common in the Sierra region than in any other in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. “Here you have the most modern and the most archaic work relations. Frequently, a company arrives to recruit these people, then dumps them in a sort of warehouse, with only one bathroom, the oven in the same space as the beds,” he says. Corte explains that, usually, after inspectors arrive, companies are forced to adapt, but not always. He agrees there is a sort of fear that stops people—Brazilians and foreigners alike—from formally denouncing these practices. “At least in this respect employers are democratic. They treat everyone poorly.”

Employers are not the only problem. All too often their colleagues make little effort to help the African immigrants feel welcome. “You can see people getting up from their tables when a Senegalese, or now the Ghanaians, arrive to eat. They just do not want to be near. Isn’t that so stupid?” Cosme complains. Racism in Brazil is a crime, and the stories about how it is embeded in every day actions are abundant, but without formal denunciation, it will never be punished. Moved by their religion, however, most Ghanaians seem willing to forgive and forget. “Nova Araçá is more friendly than Caxias. I cannot complain. They have showed us a lot of love,” Mustafa observes.

“Our Brazilian racism is way too subtle. We are shocked when some practices are thrown open. Our people begin to gain conscience, suggesting some attitudes are no longer acceptable,” says Sister Maria, herself a black person. “It is almost a feeling of panic coming from people when they are forced to face something or someone who’s different. When they, the immigrants, were just a small group, people used to say: ‘That’s nice. How cool.’ When the group began to grow in numbers and assertiveness, they began saying: ‘Oh, my God, now they are taking over the town.’ I used to hear that at the city, when I went to discussions at local radio stations and people came to me to say: ‘I’m going to have to leave Caxias, so, let’s get out of Caxias and leave it to them.’ It’s the same as saying ‘I’m the owner,’ but 40 percent of the population who already lived here is not from here.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

The hope of many immigrants and those who are seeking to integrate them into Brazil’s business and society is that that they can soon make effective contributions to the nation’s future expansion and development.

Rapid approval of the new statute can be the beginning of a solution. Brazil needs to put a new face on its immigration law. But it is not the only vital step. While the presidential election put many studies and programs dealing with immigrants on hold, the federal government does not have all the answers. “Our current law is more linked to asylum than to refuge. To make things worst, there are a number of international protocols that Brazil has never signed, which means it remains difficult to integrate a foreigner into the country,” says Brigido. “The politics of migration are centralized in Brasília, when the issue is local. It belongs to city governments. This new law will have to find a means of decentralizing it. We have a big conflict about the issuance of work documents, since the main kind of immigration in the country now is economic immigration.” In short, more people are coming to Brazil seeking to earn a decent living, even to join the exploding middle class, rather than seeking political, religious, or social asylum. 

As Brazil tries to pull together all these pieces of a deeply complex puzzle, none of the main presidential candidates offered any solution to these issues in their campaign platforms or during debates—not even the re-elected president, Dilma Rousseff, herself a daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant. The legislative bottleneck is only one element at the core of the nation’s immigration problems. While the labor market seems to be assimilating the new population entering the country—through job creation, but mostly because immigrants are assuming job posts that no longer interest Brazilians—there are several pressing issues yet to be addressed. The validation of foreign certificates to allow skilled immigrants to exercise the professions for which they’ve been trained is a key element. It is common to find engineers or professors with Ph.D. degrees working at meatpacking plants or in the metallurgy industry. The language barrier is another problem. In the absence of public employees able to deal with immigrants speaking languages other than Portuguese, many new arrivals are unable to access the most basic rights or services provided by the state. These issues range from supervision of employer-employee relations to policing contracts and the treatment of immigrants in their workplaces. All those subjects still need to be addressed by new and more streamlined public policies.

Meanwhile, state and city governments are experimenting with solutions for practical problems. The governments of four states—Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro—started by creating special committees to speak for migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking. While small cities like Nova Araçá struggle to deal with the escalating numbers of migrants overwhelming many public services, major centers such as São Paulo are seeking new ways of dealing with the growing demand. Last August, when São Paulo received hundreds of Haitians who entered Brazil through the state of Acre, the city government devoted a three-story building to receive and house immigrants. The public shelter has 110 vacancies and was meant as a halfway house for people arriving in the city. Fernando Haddad, the city’s mayor, is also preparing a reference center to offer specialized services for immigrants, such as legal orientation, professional workshops, psychological support, and Portuguese classes. Meanwhile, Caxias do Sul is helping its immigrants enter the labor market. Pessôa asked one of the main educational programs of Rousseff’s government—National Access Program to Technical Education and Employment (PRONATEC)—to teach immigrants basic manual skills. Now, she waits the approval for a Portuguese language course through the same program.

“Four years from now, I hope the resistance will be broken. These people will be better assimilated,” says Pessôa. “I think we will even have a different city. I think we will diminish this European idea, of thinking about Caxias as the Brazilian Italy. I hope we will all be seen as Brazilians, as we are here building our city. Borders are invisible, and we need to maintain our human relations above all.”

Cosme shares a similar sentiment. “If we come here, it gets better. Now we are planting to reap in the future. For now, it’s good. I had to decide because when I was younger I didn’t have such opportunities.” His fellow Ghanaians, too, are seeking to make light of today’s difficulties in hopes of better lives for their families. They were already planning to go to Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, to try to work in construction. They had just learned that their landlady’s son works at a major construction company in the capital. Meanwhile Shakir found out that two of his friends who are working in the United States, doing the same job he does in Brazil, are making more money per hour. Nonetheless, he plans to stay in Brazil. “When you suffer for your family, the truth is that it hurts, but...I want to visit my family back there once I get my passport renewed. I’ve already talked to the consulate. But only for awhile, then I’ll come back. Here in Brazil, I’m getting everything,” he nods firmly.

Not every note is perfectly pitched in an immigrant’s song.

*****

*****

Fernanda Canofre, a Brazilian journalist, writes frequently about social issues for Global Voices Online.

[Photo courtesy of Fernanda Canofre]

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