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Brazilian city loses youth to an American dream

U.S. immigration officials believe Brazilians were the fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border between 2000 and 2005
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Maria Lierje was at the kitchen table the other day, wearing a shirt with the image of a saint she believes helps her cope with lost causes. Next to her was one such case, eating spongecake and wiping milk from the dusky adolescent shadow on his upper lip.

Guilherme, her son, is 14, so he probably has another few years before he sets off on a daredevil journey to the United States. In the meantime, she tries to remind him of the five months her oldest son spent in a Texas jail after trying to cross the Rio Grande, and of his uncle, who nearly died of hunger while trying to cross the border.

"What can I do?" she asked. "I tell him he can make a good life here, that it's not that bad. But he's a man. I can't change his mind."

Getting to the United States is a coming-of-age tradition for the men of this family, and for many others in this country, apparently: U.S. immigration officials believe Brazilians were the fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border between 2000 and 2005. Last year, only Mexicans and Hondurans are believed to have crossed in greater numbers.

Brazil's distance from the United States makes emigrating a complicated process that requires both resources and familiarity with a business sector that helps coordinate border-crossing attempts. The process became more complicated last year when, with encouragement from the United States, Mexico began requiring tourist visas of Brazilians. The result, according to U.S. Border Patrol officials, has been a dramatic decrease in apprehensions at the border -- from more than 31,000 in fiscal 2005 to an estimated 1,500 in the most recent fiscal year.

'If I could, I'd go tomorrow'
But that doesn't mean people aren't still trying. Now many travel agencies here fly customers to Guatemala, where they can enter Mexico with less risk of getting caught, or try their luck on a boat. Some even go to Portugal, from where it is said to be easier to get into the United States with false documents.

"If I could, I'd go tomorrow," Guilherme said. "All the men in the family except my father are there -- two brothers, all four of my uncles. It must be fun there."

Guilherme's image of the United States is a collage of random scraps: snapshots sent from his brothers in Florida and Massachusetts; tales of local legends, like the man who emigrated to the Boston area and now owns a $6 million house; stories of newborn children with U.S. citizenship.

Almost all Brazilians go to the United States in search of economic opportunity, but they aren't the poorest of the poor. Guilherme's family, for instance, lives in a modestly comfortable home. If he stayed in this city, he would probably work in his parents' market, supplementing a modest income with occasional gifts from relatives abroad. The prospect holds no charm for him.

"I got this picture once, from my brother, of a hurricane that hit near where he lives in Florida," he said. "It was so cool."

In America, he believes, even the disasters are beautiful.

A city full of dollars
Across the railroad tracks on the outskirts of the city, armies of yellow construction machines crawl over denuded fields. Workers dig ditches in 90-degree heat. A total of 416 lots have been offered for sale in this subdivision, and all have been pre-sold. Nearly every one was bought with money sent home from the United States, according to local officials.

The site manager is considering naming the development "The Neighborhood of Immigrants."

Such a name wouldn't exactly be bracingly original here. A local newspaper, for example, is called the Immigrant and has correspondents in Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut. The city itself has been referred to as "Little America" and "Governador Vala-dolares" -- a reference to all the dollars sent home by stateside relatives.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 people from Governador Valadares are estimated to be living in the United States, most of them illegally. About 60 percent of the money flowing through the city is directly or indirectly linked to those relatives, city officials estimate.

"There are a lot of neighborhoods here built solely with the money sent back from the U.S.," said Raimundo Santana, editor of the Immigrant, who recently returned after living legally in Massachusetts for eight years. "You see a lot of homes with additions and parts that have been remodeled, all from their relatives."

The city's strong connection with the United States began in the early 1940s, when U.S. corporations began exploiting the surrounding hills for mica -- a heat-resistant mineral valued for wartime manufacturing. The companies set up processing factories, and one of the executives who came to Brazil to oversee the operations stayed and married a local woman. In the early 1960s, his family opened an English-language school that launched exchange programs with schools in the United States. At a time when much of Latin America was recoiling against U.S. influence, this city was devouring as much of it as it could, said Zenolia Maria de Almeida, a university sociologist who studies migration and is the city's education secretary.

Because Boston was the site of a historic Portuguese community, some of the first emigrants from the area settled in Massachusetts. Soon, small communities of Brazilians from this area began to spring up in New England. The most well-known U.S. cities here are not necessarily New York or Washington or Los Angeles, but instead have names like Danbury and Framingham.

Brazil received about $6.4 billion last year from its citizens who live abroad, second only to Mexico among the countries of Latin America. A University of Sao Paulo study estimated that about 14 percent of the dollars sent from the estimated 1.5 million Brazilians living in the United States end up in this city. To put that into perspective, Sao Paulo -- South America's largest city, with about 20 million residents -- gets about 4 percent.

The importance of the economic link is lost on no one here, including the city's mayor, who has instituted programs designed to improve the image of emigrants, labeling them heroes who make enormous sacrifices for their families and community. The city's most recent marketing campaign is labeled, "Wherever You Are, City Hall Is With You."

"The leaders here know that Governador Valadares is the city it is right now only because of the people who have gone to the United States," said Almeida.

Discouraging words fail
One of the most popular nightspots in town is a bar that consists of plastic tables arranged in the parking lot of a gas station. Paulo Marcos Costa sat at a table on a recent day, greeting friends who had stopped by for beers. He chatted with the waitress about her uncles and cousins who live in Danbury. A man in a Boston Red Sox cap patted him on the shoulder as he walked by.

"See that woman inside, at the counter?" Costa asked, discreetly nodding toward a customer seated near the cashier's station. "She's married, and her husband is in the U.S. right now."

The woman's hand rested on the thigh of a man sitting next to her.

"That kind of thing happens all the time around here," said Costa. "All the time."

Earlier this year, Costa started an association for friends and relatives of emigrants to help smooth the problems that often result when families are spread so far apart. He arranges legal help through a partnership with a local law school. He offers advice on investments, helping link immigrants with local opportunities. He's the one people go to when they need help with anything from divorce proceedings to funeral arrangements.

Costa, 42, has never lived in the United States, and he says he's never wanted to move there. In the 1980s, when he was in his early 20s, a wave of immigration lured almost all of his school friends stateside. When he recently traveled to the United States with city officials to visit Brazilian immigrant communities, he said it was like a high school reunion. He also saw a lot of young locals.

"The young generation of this city, those between 20 and 25 years old, are almost all living in the U.S.," said Costa. "I think it is slowing down some after Mexico started requiring visas, and thank God -- we wouldn't have anyone left here."

Costa talks to a lot of young people about the risks of moving to the United States, reminding them of the family strain, the hard life that awaits them, the trouble that a lack of English skills can bring.

One of those young people sauntered by the gas station, wearing a University of Oklahoma Sooners T-shirt.

Costa chatted with him, understanding the magnetic pull of the United States while trying to convince him that happiness is not a guarantee abroad.

The boy was Guilherme. He listened, smiled and remained thoroughly unconvinced.