Brazilians Giving Up Their American Dream

Like hundreds of thousands of middle-class Brazilians who moved to the United States over the last two decades, Jose Osvandir Borges and his wife, Elisabeth, came on tourist visas and stayed as illegal immigrants, putting down roots in ways they never expected.

“You can’t spend your entire life waiting to be legal,” said Mr. Borges, 42, reflecting on a hard decision born of lost hopes, new fears and changing economies in both countries since he arrived in 1996. By law, the couple faces a 10-year bar on re-entering the United States, even as visitors.

That decision — to give up on life in the United States — is being made by more and more Brazilians across the country, according to consular officials, travel agencies swamped by one-way ticket bookings, and community leaders in the neighborhoods that Brazilian immigrants have transformed, from Boston to Pompano Beach, Fl.

No one can say how many are leaving. But in the last half year, the reverse migration has become unmistakable among Brazilians in the United States, a population estimated at 1.1 million by Brazil’s government — four to five times the official census figures.

To explain an often wrenching decision to pull up stakes, homeward-bound Brazilians point to a rising fear of deportation and a slumping American economy. Many cite the expiration of driver’s licenses that can no longer be renewed under tougher rules, coupled with the steep drop in the value of the dollar against the currency of Brazil, where the economy has improved.

“You put it all together, and why should you stay in an environment like that if you have a place like Brazil, where there’s hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train to run you over?” said Pedro Coelho, a businessman in Mount Vernon, N.Y., who is known as the mayor of Brazilians in Westchester County. “Are they leaving? Yes, by the hundreds.”

It is too soon to say whether the reverse migration of Brazilians puts them in the vanguard of a larger trend among immigrants, or underscores their distinctiveness. Like Mr. Borges, who said he was poorly paid as a university teacher of religious studies in his native city of Curitiba, they generally come from more urban and educated classes than other major groups of illegal immigrants from Latin America, studies show. Many returning now have been investing their American earnings in Brazilian property.
But their own explanation for the surge back to Brazil contradicts conventional wisdom on both sides of the 
immigration debate.
For years, advocates of giving people like the Borgeses a chance to earn legal status have argued that illegal immigrants will only be driven further underground by enforcement measures like raids or denying them driver’s licenses. Advocates of harsher restrictions and penalties have argued that illegal immigration is now growing independently of the ebb and flow of the American economy. Returning Brazilians defy both contentions.

Faced with diminishing rewards and rising expenses in the United States, long separated from aging relatives in Brazil, “people say, ‘Is this worth it, being illegal, being scared?’“ said Maxine L. Margolis, a professor of anthropology at the 
University of Florida in Gainesville who has written extensively on Brazilians in the United States.

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