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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?

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He expects up to 7,000 to decamp this year – and more in 2010 unless the US passes immigration reform that allows illegal immigrants to work in the US.
“The economy and immigration crackdown – that’s what pushed the Brazilians back,” Mr. da Rocha says. During the first half of the decade, Brazilians were the second-fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants to the US (behind Indians), according to Alan Marcus, a professor of
geography at Towson University in Maryland.

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This isn't the first time reverse migration has picked up during a time of economic change. In the 1990s, Irish immigrants returned home to participate in that country’s economic boom. A surge of Mexican immigrants left the US in the 1930s, and the number of Italians leaving then was far greater than those coming in, says Donna Gabbacia, who teaches immigration history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. After peaking at 14 million in 1930, the number of foreign-born in the US dropped every decade through 1970 – initially because of the economy but also because of stringent immigration quotas, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.

“I think it’s perfectly possible [the foreign-born population] could shrink” again, Professor Gabbacia says, depending on the economy and changes to US immigration and refugee policies. It’s wrong to think “that once you get here, you stay here.”

The drop in immigrants has hurt some of Framingham’s businesses. In the first half of the decade, South Exchange in downtown Framingham handled an average of 10 money transfers a day. That’s dropped to fewer than four now. So in May, manager Renato Alves diversified into selling airline tickets.

“Tickets are more business to deal with because people are leaving,” he says. He says he’s already gotten some 200 calls about flights and sells three one-way tickets for every round trip one sold.

Down the street, an employee of Made in Brazil Express also says most of her company’s ticket sales have been one-way trips to Brazil.

“If [Brazilians] leave, if they’re passing through a difficult time, we also are going to be,” says Nubia Gaseta, president of a local business association. Her own company, which provides flowers for events and gifts, saw sales fall 30 percent two years ago and another 50 percent in the past year.

Brazilians don’t necessarily represent the vanguard of a larger migrant outflow. Other Latinos have not begun pulling up stakes by and large, points out Aaron Terrazas, an MPI policy analyst. One reason: Most of their home countries can’t match Brazil’s robust growth, which is drawing migrants back. (A typical estimate is that an immigrant can earn in one week in the US what he could earn in four in Brazil, says Maxine Margolis, a retired anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It would take some 10 weeks in Mexico.)

Comparisons with reverse migration during the De­pres­sion are overblown, says Mr. Terrazas. The key now is mobility. “We’re in this age where there’s so much movement,” he says. “It’s easier and cheaper.”

Nakao is proof of that. He didn’t know what he would do when he got back to Brazil. He might join his brothers, who had already returned and work as mechanics in Brasília. He might farm in the north.

Will he come to the US again? “I want to go back to stay,” he says. “But I don’t know how things will be.”