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No place like home: Brazilian immigrants leave US for better job prospects

The deep US recession – and a rebound in Brazil – have reversed the flow of migration. Will other immigrants follow?

By Taylor BarnesContributor / September 24, 2009

Leonardo Nakao (right) along with his wife, Kelma Rodrigues de Sousa, and daughter, Ketellyn Dliveira de Sousa, pack belongings in their apartment in Norwood, Mass., before flying to Brazil. Leonardo and Kelma immigrated to the United States nine years ago, but have decided to return to Brazil after the recession has left them competing for jobs with Americans.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor

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Framingham, Mass.

When Leonardo Nakao’s flight from Brazil landed in Bos­ton at 1:30 a.m., he didn’t have to search long for a job. By 5 a.m., he was pumping gas at a suburban service station. It was July 4, 2000, and Brazilian immigrants were enjoying a star-spangled boom.

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More offers poured in. In his first week in the United States, Mr. Nakao got seven calls about jobs to fill the two days he wasn't working. He was soon earning $1,000 a week. Then, two years ago, the global recession hit. Work got more strenuous, and the value of the dollar had fallen relative to Brazil’s real, slashing the value of the $400 a month he sent to his family in Brazil.

“It’s difficult, with the dollar low. The employment is not easy. The rent is high. The gasoline is high,” Nakao said on a rare break from his 80-hour/$1,200-a-week landscaping job. “If the opportunities were better and the immigration laws more favorable, I’d think about staying.”

Instead, he was counting the days – just eight more at the time of this interview – until he followed the 20 members of his family who had already left the US in the last two years to go back home.

It’s a calculation that many of America’s newest residents are making. For some, the US remains the best place to make a living, despite its economic woes and tougher stance on immigration. For others, the lure of home has grown, especially when home has escaped the depths of the global recession. No one knows how many Indians, Chinese, or Brazilians have left in the past two years. The US gave up trying to track emigration in the late 1950s. But estimates and anecdotal evidence suggest that for Brazilians, at least, more are leaving than ever before.

The outflow is leaving its mark on places like downtown Framingham, Mass. The Boston suburb, founded in the 1600s by English settlers, began to acquire its Latin flair in the late 1990s when placards in Portuguese and the green, yellow, and blue of the Brazilian flag began popping up in once-vacant downtown storefronts. By mid-2005, one-quarter of Framingham’s residents was foreign-born, the vast majority of them Brazilian. An estimated 70 percent of the stores downtown are Brazilian-owned.

In the past two years, however, the number of Brazilians living here has dwindled. Local estimates vary widely – up to 40 percent have left, according to the owner of one prominent local flower shop.

“There’s [fewer] immigrants out on the streets,” says Gilberto Yoshida, president of Chang Express, which has been selling plane tickets to South America for 16 years. His company saw a “tremendous spike” in one-way tickets to Brazil sold last winter, which is when seasonal construction and outdoor work tend to dry up. What is clear is that almost no new immigrants are coming in.

“Zero. Zero. Zero. No one is coming from Brazil,” says Manuel Barilio, as he counts the handwritten entries in his spiral notebook where immigrants register to say they’re looking for work. Mr. Barilio, director of the Bom Samaritano social services center in Framingham, says he now gets at most a handful of entries each day.

The change is evident statewide. Massachusetts, once a top destination for Brazilian immigrants, along with Florida, New Jersey, and New York, used to receive about 50,000 a year during the boom years, says Fausto da Rocha, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, Mass. In the past two years, about 17,000 of the state’s approximately 200,000 Brazilians have gone back home, he estimates.