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Brazilians Streaming Into U.S. Through Mexican Border

New York Times | June 30, 2005
By LARRY ROHTER

BRAÚNAS, Brazil - For years, Jaider de Andrade, a 35-year-old farm worker, talked about going to the United States to look for work, and early in March he finally agreed to a trafficker's offer to fly him to Mexico and have him guided across the border there. By month's end, though, he was back home here again, in a coffin.

"His dream had always been for us to have a little house of our own, but he never could make enough here to get ahead," his widow, Nilce Aparecida Moreira da Silva, said at the couple's homestead. "He knew there was some risk, but he wasn't nervous, because he saw that so many other people from around here had gone and done well in the United States."

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.

Those waiting one afternoon did not want to talk with a reporter about their travel plans, but the Federal Police delegate for the region, Rui Antônio da Silva, estimated that 90 percent were headed for the United States via the Mexican route. "We believe that just in this region there are about 30 gangs that offer this service to people," he said. "It's a very lucrative business, and a lot of people are involved."

Mr. da Silva said that last year his office issued an average of about 45 passports a day. Since January the number has jumped to a daily average of 140. A few minutes later, an assistant came into his office. "The numbers just don't stop growing," she said. "We hit a new record today, more than 200 passports."

American authorities say that many of the trafficking gangs use travel agencies as fronts. Governador Valadares, a pleasant city of 250,000 in the sprawling inland state of Minas Gerais, which is the source of the majority of the Brazilians apprehended on the Mexican border, now has more than 100 such firms, up from 40 just a couple of years ago.

People here who have been approached by trafficking rings said that the going rate at the moment for door-to-door transport to Boston, the preferred destination of illegal Brazilian immigrants, is about $10,500. That is more than two years' income for the average Brazilian, but effectively 30 percent less than a year ago, because the American dollar is weaker now.

Brazilian officials and residents of this region said that unlike smuggling situations in many places, migrants do not pay in advance and do not pay at all if they fail to reach the United States, which greatly reduces the financial risk to potential migrants.

Mr. de Andrade's widow said her husband had offered a small parcel of land he owned as collateral. After he died, in an automobile accident in northern Mexico, the smuggler returned the land.

The accelerating outflow of people has come as a surprise to Brazilians and a blow to their self-image. This nation of 180 million has, after all, traditionally attracted millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia and prides itself on its social mobility.

"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."

One sure sign that "making America" has entered the popular imagination is that in March, Brazil's largest television network began broadcasting a soap opera called "America," which follows a young woman's efforts to get to the United States through Mexico and to adjust to life in Florida.

Experts disagree about whether it is encouraging Brazilians to head north, but more than 40 million people are watching nightly.

In an effort to discourage the flow, Brazilian priests in Massachusetts have recently published a letter on the Internet alerting illegal immigrants to the dangers they may confront on their way to the United States.

"When they don't die, the migrants are subjected to violence or raped, and experience humiliating situations like sleeping in cemeteries, walking for miles and miles through the desert or drinking water from sewers," their document warns.

Since the 1960's, Governador Valadares has sent a stream of immigrants to Boston and nearby cities, but the stream has been growing larger. Mayor José Bonifácio Mourão estimates that 40,000 people from his city have emigrated to the United States. "Almost every family, including mine, has relatives in the United States," he said.

But American authorities report increases in illegal immigration from all of Brazil's southern, more prosperous states. "It is as if we have infected other regions with the migratory virus," said Weber Soares, a research specialist in immigration issues at the Vale do Rio Doce University in Governador Valadares.

The Brazilian government estimates that between 1.5 million and three million Brazilians are living abroad, most in the United States or Japan. Last year, according to a congressional estimate, the emigrants sent nearly $6 billion in remittances back to Brazil, or about the same amount earned by Brazil's leading export product, soybeans.

Until a few years ago most Brazilians living illegally in the United State went as tourists and simply overstayed their visas. But that changed when the United States tightened visa requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Mexico changed its visa policy.

"We started because it was something the business community asked for and to deter the mafia falsifying visas around our consulates," the Mexican ambassador to Brazil, Cecília Soto, said in a telephone interview from Brasília. "But it has become a problem these last couple of years, and we have seen that the mafias of human traffickers in both countries are clearly working together."

She said Mexico planned to send an official delegation soon to discuss immigration problems.

Many here maintain that any effort to crack down on trafficking schemes is bound to fail. The smuggling rings will not be eliminated, the argument goes, but only be driven deeper underground.

"Nothing indicates that this flow will diminish, despite the efforts to scare people into not going," Mayor Mourão said. "The incentives to go up there to the U.S. are still high. If anything, the tendency is for the flow to increase."

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