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Brazil's economic boom drawing immigrant workers home

Brazilians are returning to better opportunities. Unemployment is at a historic low, and incomes are rising rapidly. In many sectors, Brazilians earn more than their U.S. counterparts.

September 02, 2011|By Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times
  • Shoppers pass a store in Brasilia. Brazil's economic boom has raised incomes, especially among the middle and lower-middle classes.
Shoppers pass a store in Brasilia. Brazil's economic boom has raised… (Adriano Machado, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil — Two years ago, Victor Bahia was scraping by on tips from delivering pizzas to UC Berkeley students, living in rough neighborhoods and dodging immigration authorities. These days, he runs his two businesses between frequent trips to the beach here in his hometown and barbecues with his family at a new house in a quiet suburb.

But he didn't return because he had realized the dream of many immigrants: earning enough money in the United States to start a new life at home. He gave up on California because he became convinced that booming Brazil offered much more opportunity than the crisis-ridden U.S.

And, like many others who have increasingly made the return journey, he found that reality far exceeded his expectations.

"I never planned on leaving, really. I love it there," said Bahia, 25. "But my mom and everyone here kept telling me that this economy was exploding like never before, and all the work had dried up in the Bay Area. It's the same reason that the majority of the Brazilians I knew there were also leaving."

Since the economic crisis struck in the U.S. three years ago, the Brazilian economy has continued to surge, and the currency, the real, has appreciated dramatically against the dollar. The unemployment rate here is at a historic low, and incomes, especially of the lower and middle classes, are rising rapidly. In many sectors, Brazilian workers earn more than their U.S. counterparts.

"It's hard to get specific numbers," said Eduardo Gradilone Neto, undersecretary-general for Brazilian Communities Abroad at the Foreign Ministry. "But we're seeing that a significant part of what we call the Brazilian diaspora is coming home, because there are comparatively so much more opportunities here than there were five or 10 years ago."

He said Brazilians began emigrating in large numbers in the 1990s, when opportunities in Europe and the United States looked attractive compared with the economic problems in their homeland. At one point, he said, 3 million Brazilians were living abroad, many of them the young people who are the country's future. "That was the trend until 2008, when we saw the crisis in the developed countries."

About a third of the Brazilians living in Japan, for which there are official numbers because of a special visa agreement, have returned since 2008, Gradilone said.

"We wouldn't be surprised to see that a similar ratio of the community living in the U.S. had returned," he said. "And in the communities that we historically expected to see emigration, now instead of going to the U.S. or Europe, they tend to go to other Brazilian cities."

Over the last decade, Brazil has increased its trade ties with China, which has overtaken the U.S. as the country's main trading partner. High prices for commodities such as iron ore and soy have powered Brazil's economic boom, as have stable macroeconomic conditions and soaring consumer demand.

Strict banking regulations meant that Brazil was relatively unscathed by the 2008 crisis. In the years since the global meltdown, the growth has been most remarkable in the country's traditionally poorer regions, such as the northeastern state of Bahia, whose largest city, Salvador, was the capital of Brazil in early colonial times.

A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 200,000 undocumented Brazilians live in the United States, and many more are residents with visas or permanent citizenship. The Brazilian government puts the number of Brazilians in the U.S. at about 1 million.

Those who had been earning dollars saw their savings dwindle in terms of the Brazilian currency when the real appreciated rapidly, as high interest rates and growth led to a flow of investment into the country.

"I had nightmares about the drop in the value of the dollar. I dreamt that it dropped to $1 for one real and woke up screaming," said Flavia, who just returned to Salvador da Bahia with her husband, Toni. He has U.S. citizenship, but she wasn't able to acquire a green card because, she said, immigration authorities didn't believe their marriage was legitimate.

Toni got his start working illegally in California as a driver after moving from Goias, in the rural interior of Brazil, then got his papers after his first marriage, to a U.S. citizen. He and Flavia have asked that their full names not be used, because a year after applying for Flavia's green card, their case is still technically open.

"So we came back." she said. "But then I saw that my cousins who stayed here, went to school and got jobs have often earned even more than those of us who went abroad and struggled.

"I left my country when I was 18," she said, "and I went 10 years without seeing my family, and I think, was it worth it?"

She worked as a nanny in San Francisco, and says she will go back to school in Brazil, because Toni quickly found work as a contractor.

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