Brazil: In the market for millions of immigrants

For a country that once prided itself on its immigrant tradition, Brazil now has one of the lowest rates of foreign-born citizens in the world. But foreign skilled workers are needed to help accelerate development.

Sabelo Mngoma/AP
BRICS leaders, from left, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Jacob Zuma, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group picture during the BRICS 2013 Summit in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

While the United States wrangles over immigration policy, Brazil has already made up its mind about immigrants. It wants more – as many as 6 million more.

They’re needed, said Brazilian officials, to accelerate Brazil’s development.

“In a globalized world, we need not only the flow of goods and services but also the flow of minds,’’ said Brazil’s Secretary of Strategic Affairs Ricardo Paes de Barros. “We’re not after population; we’re after talent and human capital. By opening society, we can accelerate the development process.”

For a country that once prided itself on its immigrant past, Brazil now has one of the lowest rates of foreign-born citizens in the world.

“Brazil has become very, very closed to immigration,’’ said Paes de Barros. “We used to pride ourselves as a nation made by immigrants. But that just isn’t true anymore.’’

Brazil’s so-called “big migration” came in the second half of the 19th century. Between 1888 and 1929 – excluding World War I – more than 100,000 immigrants arrived annually with Italians leading the way, followed by immigrants from Portugal, Spain, Germany, the Middle East, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. At first they came to work Brazil’s coffee plantations but then they were needed on the factory floor as Brazil rapidly industrialized.

There also was brisk migration from Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. But after that, with the aim of preserving the Brazilian identity, immigration quotas were created and the torrents of new arrivals slowed to a trickle, except for a brief spurt after World War II.

A century ago, Paes de Barros said, 7.3 percent of the Brazilian population was foreign-born. Now that figure has dropped to just .3 percent. In contrast, the 2010 U.S. Census found that nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born.

“We want to get up to at least 2 percent – perhaps 3 percent,’’ Paes de Barros said in a telephone interview from his office in Brasilia. With a current population estimated at 199 million, Brazil is potentially in the market for as many as 6 million immigrants.

“And it’s OK if foreigners come temporarily and then want to go back to their home countries,’’ Paes de Barros said. “We prefer to think of it as knowledge-sharing, not a brain drain.’’

Another reason more immigrants are desirable is that fertility rates have declined rapidly since the 1960s, resulting in slower population growth. Brazil is still a relatively young nation, demographically speaking, but that will start to change around 2025. At that point, people of working age will start to decline with the elderly accounting for a higher percent of the population.

Even though the number of work visas Brazil has granted foreigners has increased in recent years, the administration of President Dilma Rousseff realizes more needs to be done.

Getting a work visa can be cumbersome. It can take many months and, in some cases, as many as 19 documents must be submitted at a Brazilian consulate, said André Sacconato, research director at Brazil Investments & Business, whose acronym is BRAiN. It serves as a catalyst for the consolidation of Brazil as an international business and investment center and it has conducted studies for the government on the impact of immigration.

Paes de Barros said the administration hopes a combination of streamlining policies and procedures for work visas as well as legislative change will make Brazil more welcoming to immigrants.

Among the ideas under consideration are broadening the types of work visas, extending work visas to family members of foreign workers so they too can hold jobs in Brazil, making the application procedure less costly and more friendly, and allowing foreign workers “conditional” visas while an investigation to show there are no comparable Brazilian workers available is pending.

Brazil has already begun to eliminate some of the red tape needed to get a work visa by allowing the digital submission of some materials.

Paes de Barros said he’d also like to see the National Congress pass a resolution encouraging migration and a law creating an agency or commission with a stated goal of increasing migration.

“The details are still being worked out,’’ he said. A working group of government agencies and universities met monthly last year to review immigration policy and come up with suggestions on how to improve it in coming decades, not just in response to the country’s record-low unemployment.

What Brazil needs now are engineers — especially chemical, mining, and electrical engineers, and doctors, architects, and technical workers, said Sacconato. What it doesn’t need are more lawyers and people with degrees in social sciences, he said.

“The developed world needs to export professionals,’’ he said. “Young people that have just graduated need work.’’

Especially acute is the shortage of engineers needed not only in Brazil’s mining, and oil and gas industries but also for large-scale road, infrastructure and communications projects.

Brazilian universities are currently graduating 40,000 engineers annually but there is a need for 60,000 new engineers each year, said Sacconato.

While representatives from the oil and gas industry say they’ve found it relatively easy to get visas for skilled professionals, workers from other sectors report more difficulties.

An English environmental consultant, for example, worked under the table while trying to obtain a visa. “The job went really well but the problem was getting the visa,’’ said the worker who asked that neither his name nor the company where he worked be revealed because of his illegal status.

He gave up his visa quest in frustration after spending what he called “a huge amount of money” on notarizing documents and flights to England to try to secure a visa and returned home after paying a fine for overstaying his old visa.

He said his employer hired him because of his fluency in English and knowledge of a green building certification currently used in Great Britain.

Brazilian authorities turned down his application, the worker said, because they determined he didn’t have enough professional experience. “It was overly protectionist,’’ he said. “I was working for a small start-up in an industry that is growing and very necessary.’’

But Rosangela Gomes, vice president of G-COMEX, a Rio de Janeiro-based company that recruits labor for the oil and gas industry, said as long as a foreign worker meets the criteria set by a potential employer, it generally takes only about a month to secure a visa.

“The oil companies generally are very demanding. They don’t approve candidates who don’t have the right profile,’’ she said.

“Since 2006, with the discovery of the pre-salt [offshore, deep-water oil finds], there was a lot of interest from the government to attract investors to Brazil,” said Mariângela Moreira, director and founder of Mundivisas, an immigration consultancy in Niteroi, a city across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro.

The government, she said, realized it needed to have clearer rules on immigration so investors would feel more secure about sinking their money into Brazil. “The interest of the Dilma government is really to update this as quickly as possible,’’ said Moreira. “I think [the government] is very much in favor of giving visas.”

Last year Brazil gave 73,022 visas to foreign workers — but just 8,340 of them were permanent visas. Still that was well ahead of the 42,914 visas granted as recently as 2009. The number of visas granted to professionals also is up dramatically since 2009.

U.S. residents received the most work visas — 9,209, followed by workers from the Philippines, Haiti, the United Kingdom, India, Germany, China and Italy.

The Ministry of Labor noted that the 4,706 visas for Haitians were humanitarian-based due to disruptions caused by the 2010 earthquake and didn’t reflect a long-term trend. Last year, thousands of Haitians who crossed the border from Peru after a complicated trip from their homeland began crowding into small towns in the Brazilian Amazon.

Despite the increasing numbers of work visas being granted, “it’s still a very small flow of people,’’ conceded Paes de Barros. “We need millions of people.’’

Taylor Barnes contributed to this story from Rio de Janeiro

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