Brazil welcomes more immigrants thanks to loopholes in laws as well as new measures
July 22, 2015
By José Tadeu Arantes
Agência FAPESP – Brazil had 1,847,274 regular immigrants in March 2015, according to statistics available from the Federal Police, which classifies them into these groups: 1,189,947 are “permanent”, 595,800 are “temporary”, and 45,404 are “provisional”, while 11,230 are “transborder immigrants”, 4,842 are “refugees” and 51 have been “granted asylum”.
The number is large, but it is only a small proportion of the world’s immigrants, who reached 250 million in 2013. In Brazil, immigrants correspond to only 0.9% of the population. The main magnets for immigrants, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain and France, have double-digit percentages.
However, the number of immigrants in Brazil is rising consistently, and this growth will pick up speed in the years ahead, owing to three main factors. Slower population growth in Brazil tends to favor the reception of foreign workers, especially during periods of economic expansion. Current economic difficulties and barriers to immigration in developed countries are reconfiguring migratory flows worldwide, shifting the main direction from south-north to south-south. Finally, Brazil is considered a land of opportunity in the minds of potential immigrants owing to the growing presence of its companies in other countries.
“Despite opposition from part of society and the media, immigrants are arriving and finding jobs. Many bring with them knowledge Brazilians often lack,” says sociologist Patricia Tavares de Freitas, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), which is linked to the University of São Paulo (USP).
The research project that earned Freitas her PhD was entitled “Migration, work and family: the Bolivian workers of São Paulo City’s garment industry” and was supported by FAPESP. Her postdoctoral research, also funded with a scholarship from FAPESP, studies “The governance of international migration and its impact on the social experience of migrants: a comparative study of national and local contexts in São Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina”.
As an example of foreigners’ contributions to the knowledge repertoire of Brazilian professionals, Freitas cites the case of Senegalese workers who are being hired by meat packers in Rio Grande do Sul for their expertise in halal meat processing, which is required for exports to countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
“This is an important economic niche because Brazil is a leading exporter of meat to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa,” Freitas told Agência FAPESP.
Her current research focuses on the political dimension, more specifically on the relationships between immigrants and the city and state governments of São Paulo, which is still the main destination for foreigners who settle in Brazil.
“A new law has recently passed the Senate and is moving through the lower house of Congress, but meanwhile the applicable norm is the Foreigners Statute, which dates from the military dictatorship [Law No. 6815, dated August 19, 1980]. This law was inspired by ‘national security doctrine’ and was designed to protect Brazilian workers. It restricts the civil, social and political rights of immigrants, especially if they lack papers. They’re controlled by the Federal Police and the National Immigration Council, which is subordinated to the Labor Ministry,” Freitas said.
“In response, immigrants and immigrant advocacy organizations began seeking local loopholes to extend their rights in practice. In many cases, they succeeded.”
Education and health
Researching the archive of the Center for Migration Studies at São Paulo Archdiocese’s Peace Mission, the main institution assisting immigrants on their arrival in the city, Freitas found that between the return to democracy in the mid-1980s and the end of the 2010s there were four main waves of immigrant advocacy, focusing on the rights to education, health, decent employment, and political representation and participation.
“In the early 1990s, the São Paulo State Education Department ruled that schools must not take in children of paperless immigrants. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, then Archbishop of São Paulo, had the Archdiocese’s Justice & Peace Committee launch a campaign to repeal this ruling, but it remained in force for another five years. It was eventually repealed when Mário Covas was state governor and Belisário dos Santos Jr. was Justice & Citizenship Secretary,” Freitas said.
The movement advocating immigrants’ rights to healthcare took place in the early 2000s in a different context. “When Marta Suplicy took office as mayor of São Paulo, she introduced administrative subdivisions called subprefeituras and decentralized the municipal health service. This included a social inclusion initiative called the Family Health Program (PSF), which is still in place and sends out physicians or other health workers to tend to the poor at home,” Freitas said.
“Back then, PSF technical staff came into contact with new immigrants from other parts of Latin America who worked in garment sweatshops. Later on, advocacy by PSF technicians in the Mooca subdivision working with representatives of the Catholic Church’s Migrants Pastoral led to a new law allowing immigrants to be employed by the PSF itself.”
Sociologists construe phenomena such as these by means of two linked theoretical concepts: “local citizenship” and “agency domain”.
“The idea of agency domain is that interactions between society and the state create instances within the latter that facilitate dialogue about the subjects of specific rights – new immigrants in this case. Through these interactions, state capabilities were and continue to be created to assist this social group,” Freitas explained.
Given the restrictive national legislation, civil organizations sought ways to extend immigrants’ rights in practice. To some extent, this changed the predominant stance on immigration in Brazil.
Brazil had closed its borders in the 1930s when President Getúlio Vargas prioritized internal recruitment and introduced measures to protect the domestic workforce. Today, it is more receptive and inclusive, despite a degree of ambivalence.
A number of tangential events contributed to this transformation. “Mercosur’s Residency Agreement, established in the 2000s, is extremely advanced in that it guarantees cultural and other rights for immigrants and their families,” Freitas said. “As a result, several South American countries changed their legislation, especially Argentina and Uruguay, which also had laws introduced by their military dictatorships. Brazil hasn’t made such far-reaching changes, but the Residency Agreement gives immigrants from other parts of the region a new status and rights such as a two-year right of abode, which can be renewed.”
Other innovations include the Humanitarian Visa, which currently benefits Haitian immigrants, and the Refugee Statute, which mainly assists immigrants from the Middle East and Africa: all those who declare themselves refugees are allowed to enter Brazil and remain here with all the necessary papers to live and work while their cases are being processed.
“The Residency Agreement, Humanitarian Visa and Refugee Statute created a new de facto situation,” Freitas said. “It’s contradictory: there are no reliable national statistics, or even an institutional framework for receiving immigrants, but on the other hand it’s a genuinely open country.”
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