And no, I’m not talking Mexico. A while back I reflected on one of the many aspects of immigration in the U.S. – which undoubtedly might seem strange for someone in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. to talk about immigration; but while Washington’s nowhere near the Mexican border, immigration in all its forms has played many roles in the Pacific Northwest; our agriculture depends heavily on immigrant labor.
However, today I’m writing to you from way south of the U.S. – Mexico border — São Paulo, Brazil, to be precise. A city of 20 million, Brazil’s biggest, and I’ve been here over two months now. I’ve been learning more about Brazil — a huge country (192 million, give or take a couple hundred thousand) — been learning Portuguese, and acclimatizing to a climate where I can wear t-shirts in the fall (big change for a Seattle girl.) That said, as unique as Brazil is, I’ve been noticing how many similarities it has with the United States — historical colonial influences (British & Portuguese respectively), historical economy based on slavery (though Brazil outlawed it after the U.S.), and hugely diverse. The latter point was what intrigued me when I attended an event last Saturday here in São Paulo — what is immigration like here?
Given its geographic location, clearly Brazil sees a number of immigrants from surrounding countries in South America, for varying reasons — whether escaping political instability & conflict (Uruguay, Colombia) or economic (Peru, Bolivia). That said, as someone who’s become increasingly aware over the years of the plight of migrant workers in the United States (I’d recommend ‘La Cosecha/The Harvest‘ – excellently insightful) – it was a bit frustrating to learn that Brazil faces some of the same challenges in the same ways as the United States when it comes to the difficult conditions many people face.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s horrible living & working conditions for every immigrant in Brazil. Clearly not — keep in mind I’m an immigrant, too! That said, if you have money, a job, decent housing, and especially a leg up with the language, you’re pretty much set. Sure, you’ve got bureaucracy when you start to deal with all the paperwork — going to register with the Federal Police is not exactly high on my list of things I enjoy doing, but it was necessary to do to stay here legally, and after my visa application process, has certainly taught me a lot about patience.
But what do you do if you don’t have the money, or the means, or a number of other reasons? Brazil too has its undocumented. It is estimated that there are some 2 million foreign residents, legal and illegal. In 2009, the government estimated its unauthorized immigrant population at around 200,000; charity & NGOs say this number is possibly more around 600,000. There are a number of people who come to São Paulo, the commercial center of Brazil, to look for a better life — but while there are many ways to survive, this doesn’t mean that everyone is able to do so at the level at which they would prefer. There are those who are limited in their resources & skills, and so can be subject to the difficulties that many people face as immigrants: exploitation of labor, human trafficking, xenophobia, difficulties of communication, culture shock, social & racial discrimination, lack of public policy (on behalf of immigrants), social injustice, domestic violence — and for those undocumented, there is also sometimes the risk of police raids that could jeopardize their ability to live and work in the country.
As any country has experienced, Brazil has seen xenophobia & discrimination towards its immigrant populations. That said, it was fascinating to read some of the national level responses to this — in the article ‘Rising Brazil tackles immigration question’, Defense Minister Celso Amorim, a former foreign minister, is noted to have said:”You cannot become the sixth economy in the world with impunity,” referring to combating such attitudes that some have against immigrants. Justice Secretary Paulo Abrao added, “Immigrants add cultural value to Brazil and collaborate in the development of the nation.” Even former president Lula stated in a speech that “repression and intolerance against immigrants will not solve the problems caused by the economic crisis,” also criticizing the “policy of discrimination and prejudice” against immigrants in developed nations.
It is perhaps unfortunate that I am not all that surprised anymore by instances of racism, discrimination & dislike of “the other” - in any society or community. That said, I was intrigued to learn that unauthorized immigrants in Brazil enjoy the same legal privileges as native Brazilians regarding access to social services such as public education and the public healthcare. The United States is currently continuing its national-level debate regarding immigration reform, and there are heated opinions on all sides. Recently the Associated Press has done away with the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its guideline book that is used professionally & academically across the world.
I’m not asking those who think the U.S. should shut down the Mexico border or ask every brown person for their papers to switch sides on the subject, but I would challenge everyone to try and see things from another perspective. You see, it certainly brings the issue a lot closer to home when all of a sudden you realize that you are ‘one of them’ — I am an immigrant.
PS: Came across this article merely a few days later– “Brazilian state declares emergency over immigration“