RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 19 2005 (IPS) — -"America", the latest hit soap opera in Brazil, has yet to lead to a boom in emigration to the United States.
So far, during its first month on the air, the show’s star failed to obtain a U.S. visa, and then tried unsuccessfully to enter the country illegally by crossing the Mexican-U.S. border, against a dramatic backdrop of death, persecution and the treachery of the migrant smugglers known as "coyotes".
Then there is the subplot featuring a Brazilian couple who have emigrated legally but are suffering severe culture shock, unable to adapt to the "American" way of life and having problems with the schooling their son is receiving in this new country.
But all of this could change. Any time now, the show will present an immigrant success story, a character who manages to earn a lot of money, and then builds a beautiful house and starts a booming business after returning to Brazil – thus inspiring an upsurge in emigration, according to priest Luiz Bassegio, national secretary of the Catholic Church-run Pastoral Service for Migrants.
This newest offering from Globo – the Brazilian network famous for its prime time soap operas that are wildly popular in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, as well as more distant corners of the globe – has kept viewers glued to their sets for a month, avidly following the characters’ search for a modern-day El Dorado, made in the U.S.A. Yet this storyline "is a double-edged sword," Bassegio told IPS.
Brazil, a country of immigrants itself, with a population of over 182 million today, became a significant "exporter" of labour during the 1980s, as a result of a stagnant economy.
There are an estimated two million Brazilians living abroad, almost half of them in the United States, but no hard figures are available, since many of them are undocumented immigrants.
This exodus could have been avoided "if the country had invested what it spends on servicing the foreign debt into generating employment here," said Bassegio, who coordinated the Social Forum on Migration during the World Social Forum held in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre this past January.
Between 1960 and 2000, the total number of migrants worldwide grew from 76 to 175 million. During this period as well, the flow of migration reversed, as the industrialised countries, which formerly took in fewer foreign nationals than the developing nations, came to account for 63 percent of the total number of immigrants worldwide.
As a result, the wealthy developed nations are adopting measures to curb clandestine immigration. The "gold curtain" stretching across the borders between the rich and poor countries is far more deadly than the "iron curtain" that once separated the former communist bloc from the capitalist world, noted Brazilian Senator Cristovam Buarque of the ruling Workers Party, during a seminar on democracy at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
For example, some 1,200 people lost their lives between 1996 and 2001 on the border between Mexico and the United States, as compared to less than 200 deaths during the almost three decades of existence of the Berlin Wall, noted Bassegio.
Making it into the United States has become even more difficult and risky since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but this has not staunched the flow of would-be immigrants.
As the obstacles to obtaining a visa to enter the country legally have increased, so has the demand for the services of those who specialise in getting people across the border illegally. At least three Brazilians have died along the Mexican-U.S. border so far this year.
Senator Helio Costa of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party is troubled by the situation of around 1,000 Brazilians detained in U.S. prisons and the emergence of vigilante groups of volunteers patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border to help apprehend undocumented immigrants.
At Costa’s initiative, the Brazilian Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a session on May 2 addressing the subject of emigration and the rings of human traffickers or "coyotes" who smuggle people into the United States through Mexico, at a cost of up to 10,000 dollars per person.
Although armed vigilante groups like the Minutemen Project in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona have attracted few volunteers and have yet to show any signs of the planes or helicopters they claim to have at their disposal, their very existence and the xenophobic message they spread have become a serious source of concern for human rights groups and government authorities in Mexico and elsewhere.
Over 300,000 Mexicans manage to get around the ever tighter border controls and make their way into the United States every year.
As for Brazil, according to Teresa Sales, a sociologist and author of the book "Brasileiros longe de casa" (Brazilians Far From Home), there is a "propensity for migrating", which could very well be further stimulated by the examples portrayed on the popular soap "America".
"Emigration is not as much a result of unemployment as the desire to ascend to a higher economic class, since the majority of Brazilians who emigrate are middle class," Sales remarked to IPS.
That is the case of Tiago Oliveira, 30, whose father is an architect. After living for five years as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, Oliveira emigrated in 2004 to Spain, where he works as a Japanese food specialist in the restaurant industry.
"It’s much better here, there is more respect for people as individuals, and they love Brazilians here," he told IPS in a telephone interview.
His situation has improved significantly, since he is now a legal immigrant, and is thus able to travel to other countries.
But Oliveira stresses other important differences. In the United States, he says, he was "a prisoner of the consumer society," making huge purchases he could not really afford and bogged down by debt. "Here I don’t even need a car, because there’s an excellent public transportation system," he noted.
Moreover, he maintained, people in the United States "don’t look any further than their own navels, they discriminate against foreigners, and they know almost nothing about the rest of the world."
He also deeply felt the lack of something he considers "fundamental": football, a national passion for Brazilians, is given little importance in the United States, but is extraordinarily popular in Spain.
Still, many Brazilians settle permanently in the United States. This is especially true when they have spent longer periods of time in the country, and have children growing up and going to school there, said Sales.
Even if these children were born in Brazil, and their parents are undocumented immigrants, they are still able to attend primary and secondary schools in the United States, although the doors to a university education are closed to them.
This is a "constraint" that is tolerated in the hopes of one day being able to obtain the so-called "green card" that will allow them to live and work legally in the United States, she said.
The first waves of Brazilian emigrants were made up primarily of young single people, although they have now been joined to a growing degree by families. The cultural obstacles have been lessened considerably thanks to the emergence of Brazilian communities in a number of cities, which are like "a little piece of Brazil" abroad, said Sales.
Her research shows that Brazilians have earned a reputation in the United States as "hard workers", which contrasts starkly with the stereotypical image of "Hispanic" Americans who have their roots in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.
These Latino immigrants and children of immigrants number around 40 million in all, of whom roughly 35 million are legal residents.
The Hispanics who have lived in the country for two or three generations and are citizens with access to benefits like unemployment insurance tend to leave the low-skilled, low-paying jobs to newer immigrants, Sales noted.
Many Brazilian emigrants will even "subject themselves to a step down in social status" in order to make more money, she added, explaining that it is not uncommon to find university-educated professionals accepting work as garbage collectors, restaurant workers or cleaning staff.
Around the world, the engine that fuels migration is inequality among countries, Sales stressed. While two million Brazilians aspire to earning thousands of dollars a month in the wealthy, industrialised countries, thousands of Bolivians come to Brazil and are thankful for a salary of 25 dollars a month, in highly precarious working conditions, she said.
The Pastoral Service for Migrants, based in the southern Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, estimates that there are a million Latin American and Asian immigrants living in Brazil today.