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Brazil: Amnesty for illegal immigrants sparks hope and controversy

14th São Paulo's Immigrant Festival, in June 2009. Photo by Rita Barreto, published with permission.

14th São Paulo's Immigrant Festival, in June 2009. Photo by Rita Barreto, published with permission.

Historically, Brazil has been a landing point for many nationalities, an openness that has given the country the diverse and multicultural character that has made it a true melting pot. Whereas in the past immigration was a government backed solution to populate the vast lands of the South American giant, in recent years the trend is the arrival of immigrants, mostly illegally living in Brazil, from neighboring countries, notably Paraguay, Peru and increasingly Bolivia, due to economic and political reasons. There is also a strong flow of people coming from China, in search of work opportunities.

From Bolivia alone, it is believed that between 1,200 and 1,500 immigrants arrive in Brazil every month, looking for jobs and ending up as illegal workers. There are an estimated 200,000 Bolivians living in the Greater São Paulo area, most of whom are undocumented. This is, however, soon to change. A new Law of Migration Amnesty has been sanctioned by President Lula da Silva, allowing foreigners in irregular situations to apply for temporary residence permits and ultimately gain legal status in Brazil. This will benefit anyone who arrived prior to February 1st 2009 – either entering the country illegally or overstaying their visas – who will now be guaranteed rights to freedom of movement and work, in addition to access to public health care, education and justice services.

According to the Ministry of Justice, roughly 50,000 people may take advantage from the law, but international organizations believe there are an estimated 200,000 qualifying immigrants. If even a quarter of this number take advantage of the new law, this will be the largest amnesty ever seen in Brazil. The hope is that the amnesty will change the fortunes of those working in sweatshops that cash in on illegal immigrants for example – a crude reality in São Paulo.

Andinean immigrants arrive in São Paulo. Photo by Thiago Macedo taken on April 2009, used with permission.

Immigrants from the Andes in São Paulo. Photo by Thiago Macedo taken on April 2009, used with permission.

The ultimate goal is to gain compassion for Brazilian immigrants living illegally abroad: more Brazilians leave the country than the thousands of immigrants arriving in Brazil, according to the Ministry of Justice. At the recent G8 summit in Italy, President Lula, who is also campaigning for the upgrade and “humanizing” of Brazil’s 1980 immigration statute, criticized rich nations for taking a tough stance against illegal migrants and called for international solidarity. Can Brazil teach other countries about the need to better treat immigrants? Ariel Pontes [pt] believes Brazil is teaching the world a lesson:

Enquanto Estados Unidos criam leis e muro entre seu território e do México para impedir estrangeiros de entrar em seu país e Israel isola comunidade palestina, presidente Lula dá ao mundo demonstração de que é possível vivermos em tempos modernos a multicultura.

While the United States pass laws and create walls between its territory and Mexico to prevent foreigners from entering the country and Israel isolates Palestinian communities, President Lula gives the world proof that in modern times we can live multiculturally.

Fernando Branquinho [pt] elaborates further:

Em época de crise, onde as oportunidades de trabalho e negócios minguam, a mesquinhez humana aguça preconceitos numa “ética de bote salva-vidas”, onde a regra é: eu me salvo, você, não! É o caldo cultural onde os fascismos prosperam, e a história nos mostra que o ápice da direita como ideologia aconteceu após a 1a grande guerra, reforçado pela crise do capitalismo de 1929. Hoje na Europa o tema que tem elegido direitistas a cada urna aberta é a restrição a estrangeiros. A França tem cotas de expulsão mensais. A Itália incentiva a deduragem de estrangeiros com a aprovação de uma nova lei que criminaliza a imigração ilegal.

No Brasil, temos uma elite tão retrógrada quanto a que deu o golpe agora em Honduras, e que se manifesta no cotidiano espumando seu ódio ao “iletrado” presidente Lula, às cotas das políticas de afirmação racial e às transferências governamentais como o bolsa-família, Prouni, etc. E temos um governo que, apesar do grande defeito de não ter avançado mais nas conquistas sociais e de ter sucumbido aos defeitos da política tradicional, acaba de sancionar a anistia a cerca de 50 mil imigrantes ilegais que se encontravam no país até fevereiro de 2009, humanizando o problema migratório. Na contra-mão da discriminação, o Brasil se mostra como país acolhedor de imigrantes, dando exemplo ao mundo.

In times of crisis, when employment and business opportunities decline, human meanness brings prejudices in a kind of “lifeboat ethics” where the rule is: I save myself, not you! It is the cultural broth in which fascism prospers, and history shows that the right wing as an ideology reached its apex after World War I, boosted by the 1929 crisis of capitalism. Today in Europe the issue that is making people cast votes for right wing politicians in each ballot box is the restriction of immigration. France has monthly quotas of removals. Italy encourages denunciation of foreigners with the approval of a new law criminalizing illegal immigration.

In Brazil, we have a retrograde elite such as the one who executed the recent coup d'état in Honduras, and who go about in their daily life foaming hatred against “illiterate” President Lula, against the policies of quotas for racial affirmation and government benefits such as the Family Grant, the [University for All Program] PROUNI, etc. And despite the fact that we have a government whose greatest mistakes were not having achieved more social development and having succumbed to the problems of traditional politics, it has just signed an amnesty for about 50,000 illegal immigrants who entered the country no later than February 2009, humanizing the immigration problem. Instead of discriminating against them, Brazil appears to be a welcoming country to immigrants, setting an example to the world.

14th São Paulo's Immigrant Festival, in June 2009. Photo by Rita Barreto, published with permission.

14th São Paulo's Immigrant Festival, in June 2009. Photo by Rita Barreto, published with permission.

On the other hand, pointing out that there have been past migration amnesties in Brazil, in both 1988 and 1998, with some 60,000 people benefiting from the last one alone, Vitor Vieira [pt] reacts sarcastically to the news of yet another amnesty:

Estrangeiros de todas as latitudes, podem vir para o Brasil e podem ficar clandestinamente aqui, porque em poucos anos será feita outra lei legalizando todo mundo. O Brasil é a mãe do mundo. Membros da Yakuza, podem entrar à vontade. Membros da máfia russa, podem chegar.

Foreigners of all latitudes may come to Brazil and stay here illegally, because in a few years there will be another law legalizing everybody. Brazil is the mother of the world. Members of the Yakuza, you may enter as you like. Members of the Russian mafia, please feel welcome.

Maria B [pt] is not happy either:

Que país de mierda.Enquanto a Itália torna crime a imigração ilegal, Lula, o bom transforma o Brasil na casa da Mãe Joana.Estou sendo polida.
Até hoje Lula só prestigiou o que não presta.Vamos aguardar o dia que vai privilegiar o que presta…sentados, por favor

What a shit country. While Italy criminalizes immigration, Lula, the good guy, turns Brazil into a whore-house. I am being polite.
Up to now Lula has only given prestige to the useless. We await the day that he will give priority to the useful… but we won't hold our breath.

Leonardo Sakamoto [pt], a blogger who follows immigration and modern day slavery matters very closely, agrees that the law is a great step in the right direction, but he stresses that it far from solves the problem:

A notícia é ótima, mas os problemas para os imigrantes ilegais não serão resolvidos de um dia para noite. Primeiro, porque o valor não é tão baixo em se tratando de famílias pobres com muitos membros: por exemplo, cinco pessoas terão que desembolsar R$ 490,00 – o que não é pouca coisa para quem já não ganha quase nada. Além disso, para obter o registro definitivo, o estrangeiro terá que, entre outras coisas, comprovar que está trabalhando. Considerando que muitos estão na informalidade – como uma parte considerável do resto da população brasileira – quais serão os documentos exigidos? Contracheque fantasma de oficina de costura ilegal?

É um primeiro passo, mas o ideal seria atingir algo mais profundo, que mude também a forma como vemos a América do Sul e como a “Sudamerica” nos vê.

Os preços baixos de roupas em ruas de comércio paulistanas como a José Paulino ou a Oriente, que tanto atraem os consumidores do varejo e do atacado, muitas vezes são obtidos através da redução dos custos no processo de produção. A maior parte dos funcionários utilizados na confecção dessas roupas é composta por imigrantes latino-americanos em situação ilegal no Brasil. Bolivianos, paraguaios, peruanos, chilenos formam um verdadeiro exército de mão-de-obra barata e abundante em São Paulo. Saem de seus países de origem em busca de uma vida melhor em solo brasileiro, fugindo da miséria. Das comunidades latino-americanas na capital paulista, os bolivianos destacam-se por constituir a mais numerosa. Além disso, encontram-se nas situações mais graves de exploração e degradação do trabalho humano.

This is great news, but the problems illegal immigrants face will not be solved overnight. Firstly, because the legalization fee is not cheap when it comes to poor people with many family members, for example, five people will have to cough up R$ 490.00 ($ 254.00 approximately) – which is not a small amount for those who don't earn much. Moreover, to get the permanent residence permit, foreigners must, among other requirements, give evidence that they are working. Considering that many are doing casual work – as also are a great part of the rest of the population – what will be the required documents? Ghost payslips from clandestine sweatshops?

It is a first step, but it would be ideal to achieve something deeper, which would also change the way we see South America and “Sudamerica” sees us.

The low prices of the clothes sold on the São Paulo streets José Paulino or Oriente, which both attract retail and wholesale customers, are often possible because of the reduction of the production costs. Most employees working in the manufacture of clothing are Latin American immigrants in illegal situations in Brazil. Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians, Chileans make a real army of abundant, cheap labor in Sao Paulo. They leave their home countries in search of a better life on Brazilian land, fleeing poverty. Among the Latin American communities in São Paulo, Bolivians stand out as the largest. Furthermore, they are in the most serious situations of exploitation and degradation of human labor.

The blogger carries on explaining that many of these workshops operate illegally in hidden basements, without fresh air or daylight in order not to raise suspicion. The noise of machinery is suffocated by loud Bolivian music and ‘employees’ are locked inside facing walls, unable to see or talk to other, to avoid mobilization and demands for better working conditions. Because of their illegal situation, they earn unlawfully low wages and are kept in constant fear of being out of work, and in some cases, their employers even keep all their documents, so that the workers have no other choice. At the end of his long, lucid and comprehensive post, Sakamoto [pt] takes the opportunity to ask: “after all, what is it really to be a Brazilian?”

A história de nosso país é uma história de migrações, de acolher gente de todos os cantos do mundo (não tão bem, é claro – São Paulo, por exemplo, é a maior cidade nordestina fora do Nordeste e, ao mesmo tempo, ostentamos um preconceito raivoso e irracional). Mas não faz sentido que viremos às costas aos que vêm de fora e adotam o Brasil, mesmo que a contragosto. Eles são tão brasileiros quanto eu e você, trabalham pelo desenvolvimento do país, mas normalmente passam invisíveis aos olhos da administração pública e do resto de nós.

Our country's history is a history of migration, of welcoming people from all corners of the world (not so well, of course – São Paulo, for example, is the largest Northeastern city outside the Northeast, while, at the same time, we bear an angry and irrational prejudice against them). But it makes no sense to turn our backs on those who come from abroad and adopt the country, sometimes even against their will. They are as Brazilian as me and you, working for the development of the country but are usually invisible in the eyes of the public administration and the rest of us.
Centenary of Japanese immigration in Brazil. A photo by emersonik, published under a Creative Commons License.

Centenary of Japanese immigration in Brazil. A photo by emersonik, published under a Creative Commons License.

Immigrants who succesfully apply for a residence permit will have all the rights of Brazilian citizens, only remaining forbidden from voting and joining the army. The request for temporary residency should be filed within 180 days from the publication of this new Law, and the applications must be directed to the Ministry of Justice.

14 comments

  • yemi

    have problem withe on going amnesty i have my visa november 2008 but i came to brazil 18th of february 2009 and now i need the amnesty but of which they stated that people that came in before february 1st should be given please kindly assist me on how i can get this ongoing amnesty so that i can be able to get acess to work in brazil

  • sogo

    really commend the effort of our able president in person of president lula brazillian president sir,i just want to tell you some certain about the issue of the amnesty sir concerning the issuing sir i am a forigner also here in brazil but partly am a brazillian but i saw some foreigners here who told me something of which i want your concern about it sir .they said they came in to februery but after february 1 and they need this amnestyat least to survive a while in brazil ,sir i want you to help tjhis people sir may be if you can allow every illegal to get entitle to this amnesty and may be you can give them all ultinatum of which they must get it sir your indulgence and concern is needed over this because this people i saw are not doing well at all

  • [...] same blog reports this case of a Bolivian immigrant, one of many working on these conditions: Sentada há mais de 16 horas diante da máquina de costura, a mãe de Ramón tem pressa. Maria [...]

  • [...] blog também relata a uma situação de uma imigrante boliviana, uma dentre tantos estrangeiros ilegais no Brasil trabalhando nessas condições: Sentada há mais de 16 horas diante da máquina de costura, a mãe [...]

  • paul downing

    I love Brazil.
    I think Brazil will be a world leader in the not too distant future, especially if it gives the right to vote to its many legal permanent foreign immigrants.
    Please allow people who have the passion to serve brazil and its communities the opportunity to stand for public office.
    Regards

  • [...] Blog berichtet über den Fall eines bolivianischen Einwanderers, einer von vielen, die unter diesen Bedingungen arbeiten: Sentada há mais de 16 horas diante da máquina de costura, a mãe de Ramón tem pressa. Maria [...]

  • [...] Dasselbe Blog berichtet über den Fall eines bolivianischen Einwanderers, einer von vielen, die unter diesen Bedingungen arbeiten: [...]

  • i came to brazil in january2008 and i left for venezuela to spent 4 months and came back again in march. Have i qualify to secure the amnesty? although my passpport was stamped out.

  • yemi

    hello sir concerning the amnesty going on in brazil ,have written to th global voices but have seen any reply about it ,please kindly help me out

  • Hello

    I am afraid, Global Voices can not help with any inquires; we do not have the information you need. Please check this FAQ link, from Ministério da Justiça:

    http://www.mj.gov.br/main.asp?View={34DE3454-2651-4DE3-BF0F-D3AEC8441A4C}

    If you are still not sure, it is better to contact an immigration adviser.

    Thanks!

  • i want brief information concerning the amnesty going on in Brazil, thanks

  • kiko

    i think Brasil will be a powerful force here soon.

  • Lindsay

    once they see how much money they are missing out in taxes not being paid by these illegal immigrants then they won’t think it is such a good idea and they will stop bashing the United States for wanting to secure their boarders. schools are over populated with illegal immigrant kids and are not receiving federal money because the illegals do not pay property or income taxes.

  • [...] foram encontrados em São Paulo trabalhando em confecções. Atualmente fala-se em mais de 200 mil bolivianos só em São Paulo, com a chegada de pelo menos 1200 novos imigrantes todos os meses. “Nas [...]

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