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Death of a Dream

Brazilian immigrants are leaving Connecticut's recession for a better life back home

Daniel D'Ambrosio

December 29, 2008

Ioneida, a dark-haired, 26-year-old Brazilian woman, came to the United States when she was 17 and never left. She told the customs agent in Miami she was here to celebrate her birthday at Disney World. Like an estimated 60,000 Brazilians in Connecticut, she came for a better life.

Now she works days at a Portuguese bakery in Parkville, the heart of Hartford's Brazilian community, and nights cleaning offices and restaurants with her mom and a crew of fellow Brazilians. She's saving up to continue her education at Goodwin College in East Hartford, where she needs about $1,000 for each class. She started at Goodwin last January but had to drop out by summer.

"I can't apply for financial aid so I have to pay, because of my situation," says Ioneida, who asked that her last name not be used because she's here illegally.

"They ask for a Social Security number or a green card, and I don't have that."

When they came to Hartford in 2000, Ioneida and her mother joined her brother Gutemberg, who had a business cleaning movie theaters seven nights a week.

But two months ago, with his hours cut and his cleaning business faltering, Gutemberg returned for good to Brazil to take over his father's driving school. He joined what has become a flood of Brazilians leaving behind the economic crisis in the United States for an improving economy in their home country. Recently, Ioneida spoke by phone with her repatriated brother, who told her he's still trying to revive the family business, but that "the best thing here is sleeping through the night."

Estimates on the number of departing Brazilians are staggering. Ester Sanches-Naek, well known in Hartford as the president of the Shaheen Brazilian Community Center on Park Street, guesses that at least 20 percent of the Brazilians in the state had returned home recently because of the economy.

"Not only is the economy here getting bad but the economy in Brazil is getting better," she says.

Two months ago, the dollar was worth four Brazilian real. Now it's worth two. "When the dollar was four for one, you could do a lot," says Sanches-Naek. "Now you can't do much any more."

Thousands of Brazilians fled to the U.S. after March 1990, when inflation there reached a ruinous monthly rate of 82 percent, according to Erika Watanabe Patriota, deputy consul at the Consulate General of Brazil in New York. Today the country is on an upswing. Annual inflation for the period from October 2007 to October 2008 was running at 6.25 percent, thanks to a stable government led by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and a diversified economy anchored by oil giant Petrobras. Last year, Brazil's stock market reached a value of $1 trillion, a first for a Latin-American country.

"The economic situation in Brazil and the United States plays a major role in influencing people to go back to Brazil," says Patriota. "In the last three months [the Brazilian economy] grew almost 7 percent more than in the same months in 2007."

Compare that to the latest numbers for Connecticut, which has shed more than 13,000 jobs in the last year and is expected to lose between 40,000 and 80,000 more before the current economic crisis is over.

Danbury is the capital of the Brazilian community in Connecticut, with a population of around 15,000 at its peak. No one knows for sure how many Brazilians make Connecticut home because the vast majority, perhaps as many as 90 percent, are undocumented. Estimates statewide range from 60,000 to 100,000, split among Danbury, Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury, according to Eric Galm, an assistant professor of music and ethnomusicology at Trinity College, who has strong ties to the Brazilian community.

Breno DaMata, publisher of the Brazilian newspaper Communidade News in Danbury, says he believes 5,000 to 6,000 Brazilians have fled the city as a result of the economic crisis, leaving a population of "maybe nine or 10 thousand."

"There are still people leaving," says DaMata. "If you go to the Brazilian travel agents you'll see that. Ask them. They sell tickets one-way almost every day."

That's true, says Jack Magalhaes, who came from Portugal 11 years ago to open the One Stop Travel Agency on Danbury's mostly Brazilian Main Street. Magalhaes sells one or two one-way tickets to Brazil most days and sold even more last summer when gas prices were sky high.

"When I came to the United States in 1998, everything was fine here," says Magalhaes. "If you want a job, you find a job. Now everything is slowed down."

Moments earlier, Magalhaes had booked a Dec. 28 ticket back home for a Brazilian man who told him he had earned just $3,000 in the past nine months. Magalhaes says he knew of many families, living here for 15 or 20 years, who were filling large shipping containers with all of their possessions for the one-way journey to Brazil.

Publishing a successful newspaper, DaMata is the exception rather than the rule in Connecticut's Brazilian community. Most of the men are laborers, working construction, painting houses, or landscaping. Most of the women are domestics, cleaning houses and commercial properties. A victim of runaway inflation and a bad Brazilian economy in the 1990s, DaMata lost his job at a large textile mill in the city of Sete Lagoas, a place he describes as "nice to live but hard to make a living." DaMata tried for two months to find another job but there were none to be had. He was unemployed for a year.

"I always thought about coming to the United States," says DaMata. "When I was a kid I had that thing in my mind. It wasn't a hard decision. In Brazil we have a lot of influence from the United States."

Arriving in 1998 in Danbury where his wife's sister lives, DaMata and his family (he has two children) easily obtained visas. After finding work at another Brazilian newspaper in Danbury that's now the competition, DaMata applied for his green card for permanent resident status in 1999. He still doesn't have the card, which would put him one step away from citizenship.

"I believe that I should receive my green card in two or three months; I've been waiting for 10 years," says DaMata.

In the meantime, DaMata sent his children back to Brazil four years ago to get college educations. Without a green card, he would have had to pay out-of-state tuition, which he couldn't afford.

"They knew that if they stay here, there's no bright future because they end up working at Dunkin' Donuts forever," says DaMata. "I don't want that future for them. They don't want it either. So they knew the best thing is to go to Brazil and go to college."

DaMata and his wife have not seen their children — 21-year-old Ana and 20-year-old Breno, Jr. — since they returned to Brazil. If they went to visit their children where they live in Belo Horizonte, DaMata and his wife couldn't return to Danbury because they're not yet permanent residents.

DaMata knows there are many Americans who feel little sympathy for his plight, or especially for those illegal immigrants who, unlike him, are forced to live in the shadows.

"I think most Brazilians think there's so many people who just don't like immigrants, illegal or legal," says DaMata. "If you watch Lou Dobbs you're going to see that. That guy just doesn't like immigrants."

But DaMata believes the United States, and Connecticut, will ultimately lose out if it doesn't find a way to accommodate what he sees as simply the latest wave of immigrants — Latinos. He points out that he owns a house and a business and pays taxes, and that he's not alone.

"I always think that the United States should treat immigrants with a little more compassion," says DaMata. "They just think all immigrants are illegal and don't pay tax. It's not true."

If a tanking economy's one reason for the Brazilian exodus, fear might be another. A tidal wave of fear pounded Hartford's Brazilian community in November, 2007, when 21 illegal immigrants were swept up by federal immigration agents as part of an effort by Hartford police to track down a 23-year-old Brazilian accused of shooting a man in the neck in a small Brazilian restaurant.

Park Street, where Hartford's Brazilian community is centered, became a ghost town overnight and still hasn't fully recovered. Last May, three illegal immigrants who were volunteering in Ester Sanches-Naek's community center were also arrested, and one was immediately deported.

Sanches-Naek closed the center and this September, cancelled the fourth annual celebration of Brazil's declaration of independence from Portugal in 1822. She expected to attract up to 4,000 people. But no one wanted to be seen in her center or at the celebration, she says.

"I decided to be quiet because these two people who were arrested are still afraid to be deported," says Sanches-Naek, who plans to reopen the center in coming months. "Their lives are here. They've been here over 10 years."

In Danbury, 11 Ecuadorian day laborers were arrested in September 2006 by federal agents with the assistance of local police in what the Yale Law Clinic has characterized as racial profiling. And last February, the city voted to deputize its police to enforce immigration laws, causing an outcry in the immigrant community.

Brandon Montgomery, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says despite what Hartford's Brazilian community might believe, the agency doesn't randomly target undocumented immigrants.

"We don't have the manpower to do that," says Montgomery. "We have to prioritize what we consider the biggest threats to national security and communities in general."

Undocumented immigrants wanted for crimes are "low-hanging fruit," according to Montgomery, and will always be targeted. So will work sites where employers may have undocumented laborers. And then there are the tips the agency regularly receives. Like the one from a trucker in Mississippi that led in August to the biggest bust yet: 398 undocumented immigrants arrested at an electronics plant in Laurel, Miss.

"If you come here illegally that's one of the consequences you have to prepare for," says Montgomery. "You decided to come here, you have to be prepared at any moment to be picked up and possibly removed."

Given the current economic climate, that may not be the threat it once was. As a director of the Comunidade News, Lucio Souza wrote in a recent issue: "Deciding to leave the United States and return to Brazil is not very difficult during this time. To see Brazilians give up the American dream is increasingly common. The difficulties of living without documents, to not speak the language, to be without a job and the arrival of a winter with temperatures below freezing are reasons more than sufficient for those who were already thinking about returning to Brazil."

When Ioneida slipped into the United States under the guise of a Disney World birthday in 2000, she and her family flew directly into Miami. But that was before 9/11, and before immigration became the hot-button issue it is today.

After both Canada and Mexico began requiring visas for Brazilians to visit their countries, it became impossible to make the trip north without the help of so-called "coyotes," who charge as much as $25,000 to transport a client from Brazil to the United States.

The coyote organizations stretch all the way from the Brazilian city of Governador Valadares — ground zero for immigration to the United States — to the Mexican border and beyond.

"They have people in the city of São Paolo, they have people in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and even the United States in Arizona and around the border," says DaMata, the newspaper publisher. "It's a business — a big business, actually — for them."

DaMata estimates that 90 percent of the Brazilians who have tried to immigrate following 9/11 have used coyotes from Governador Valadares.

"People don't realize these coyotes are nothing less than organized criminals," says Jason Ciliberti, a supervisory border patrol agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"They may have been mom-and-pop operations in the past but they're very extensive organizations now. Transactions start in the south and work all the way up to the north."

And as the costs and the stakes for border crossings have gone up, says Ciliberti, so has the likelihood of conflict.

The coyotes "are going to fight for clients and often that does include kidnapping, murder and rape," he says. "Some of them are exceedingly brutal and bring a certain level of violence to the border that hasn't been there before."

DaMata recently published a story in his paper about a Brazilian who had been held by coyotes for five months somewhere in the United States — he had no idea where he was — until his brother agreed to pay $20,000 for his release.

"Most people don't realize the situation before they get into it," says DaMata. "They are just thinking about going to the United States to work. They don't realize it's going to be hard, going to be dangerous."

Ciliberti says border patrol agents caught only about 1,000 Brazilians trying to cross into the United States so far in 2008, reflecting the flood that has been reduced to a trickle. Compare that to 600,000 Mexicans caught crossing, the number one group.

Before Mexico began requiring visas four years ago, Ciliberti says the border patrol "definitely encountered a lot of Brazilians." But he says those who are still making the journey are taking even bigger risks.

"The smugglers are crossing people in more harsh and remote areas as we've locked down San Diego and El Paso," says Ciliberti. "These coyotes simply don't care about those people, not one bit. If someone starts to lag behind, they get left behind, no ifs, ands or buts."

That's why the Border Patrol has recently fielded a large team of agents trained in search and rescue as well as medical treatment.

The exodus of undocumented Brazilians from Connecticut reflects a nationwide trend among "less-educated, young Hispanic immigrants," in the country, according to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. A report issued last July by CIS estimated some 1.3 million illegal immigrants had left the United States in the past year, dropping the total population from 12.5 million to 11.2 million. And all signs point to the economy, rather than vigorous enforcement of immigration laws, as the driving force behind the numbers.

"The estimated decline of the illegal population is at least seven times larger than the number of illegal aliens removed by the government in the last 10 months, so most of the decline is due to illegal immigrants leaving the country on their own," wrote the authors of the report.

For her part, Ioneida is trying to stay out of trouble and save up her money for college.

"I really want to finish this, I have to have an education to find a better job," she says.

She's not particularly worried for her own safety since she doesn't have a driver's license and rarely goes out. But she is worried about her mom, who drives her to school and work, possibly attracting the attention of police.

"Most of the people I know, they want to go back someday. They doesn't want to stay here forever," says Ioneida. "They organize their life over there because the way it is you can't stay here forever illegal."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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