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Sunday, June 13, 2004

It's a hard life for Brazilian immigrants: 6/ 13/ 2004

It's a hard life for Brazilian immigrants: 6/ 13/ 2004

It's a hard life for Brazilian immigrants
By JOAO FERREIRA, Standard-Times staff writer

A young woman sits nervously in a lawyer's office in Minas Gerais, Brazil, putting her life on hold and her family in peril.
Her goal is to obtain a visitor visa to the United States. To accomplish that, the corrupt lawyer will temporarily deposit a large amount of money in her bank account. Having a lot of money makes it easier to get a visa.
Once the young woman is in America, she'll defy the limit of the visitor's visa and stay here. She'll live in an underworld of illegality and struggle to come up with the money to pay between $8,000 and $12,000 to her corrupt attorney in Brazil, and survive.
This is the story of 90 percent of an estimated 250,000 Brazilians living in Massachusetts, a community advocate says.
"Once they get into that debt, they have no option," said Fausto da Rocha of the Brazilian Assistance Center in Allston. "The Mafia that handles their cases has no mercy."
In many cases, if an immigrant fails a payment, family members are threatened and become the target of crime, advocates said.
To make the payments and have a shot at the American dream, undocumented Brazilian immigrants here usually take risky jobs nobody else wants, are abused at work, don't have health benefits and live in shifts in apartments packed like sardines in cans.
"They're far from home, have no friends, no family, work a lot of hours, have no social life," said Connie Souza with Catholic Social Services in Hyannis. "And they have the pressure, because they don't have documents. That's what we see almost every day."
Ms. Souza said there are about 15,000 Brazilians on Cape Cod. The community is also growing in SouthCoast, namely in Fall River.
Brazilians work in Cape Cod's tourism and construction industries. They're now a common fixture in places like Hyannis and Martha's Vineyard. What slips past most tourists visiting the Cape is the story behind these recent arrivals and the hardship they endure.
According to advocates, undocumented Brazilians work up to 80 hours a week, and they often don't get paid. Mr. da Rocha said he sees up to 10 cases a week of Brazilians who have not been paid for their work.
"When the worker finally notices what's going on, four or five months have elapsed," he said. "They're immigrants, they don't know the language. ... Even those who have documents are abused."
Mr. da Rocha said in January alone he reviewed 560 cases, following a television program in the Boston-area about workers' rights. He said 167 cases were open and $97,000 in salaries recovered as a result. A number of cases were referred to Attorney General Tom Reilly's office. One of those cases involved nine carpenters from New Bedford who had not received $50,000 in back salaries.

At high risk

Brazilians are also at high risk for work-related injuries or being killed at work, Mr. da Rocha said.
He said that 12 percent of those killed at work in Massachusetts are Brazilians.
"They work too much and don't protect themselves," he said. And work-related injuries are underreported, since undocumented workers are often pressured to lie about how they got hurt.
"They don't know the laws and think they don't have rights," Mr. da Rocha said. "The most common thing is that people are afraid to go to the hospital and lose their job. Just recently I saw a Brazilian working with a ligature in his arm and a jacket over it. He should have been home collecting worker's compensation."
Undocumented immigrants hurt at work qualify for worker's compensation and treatment, Mr. da Rocha said. Otherwise, undocumented immigrants don't qualify for state health care and can't buy insurance through work because they are working illegally.
Advocates have sharply criticized federal and state officials for cutting medical insurance to illegal immigrants. Before the 1996 immigrants and welfare law reforms, illegal immigrants were eligible for preventative care. Advocates say the current situation will end up costing the state more money.
"The ideal would be if everybody could have access to health insurance. It's a national security issue," Mr. da Rocha said. "That's something the governor should rethink."
Undocumented immigrants' problems don't end here. They can't drive legally because they don't qualify for a driver's license. Their children can't go to public colleges and universities because they're illegal. They often live in sub-human conditions in crowded apartments, sleeping in shifts.
Recently, a Brazilian immigrant said he obtained a driver's license in a Midwestern state where a Social Security number is not need to get a license. Others simply drive without a license; their cars registered under someone else.
According to advocates, Brazilian immigrants often rent an apartment and then sub-rent rooms to other fellow immigrants. They also often rent the same room to different persons who work different shifts.

"enterprising community"

The Brazilian community is a hard-working, enterprising and ingenious group, advocates say. Despite living here illegally, many have bought property, started businesses and prospered, bringing a new vibrancy to many local cities and towns.
"This is an enterprising community," Mr. da Rocha said.
He said about 3,000 Brazilians statewide have bought property and about the same number have started businesses, many of them informal.
"They're pouring a lot of money into the properties and nothing is guaranteed," said Helena S. Marques, executive director of the Immigrants' Assistance Center in New Bedford. "At times I think I worry more about it than them."
As all other undocumented immigrants, Brazilians dream about living legally in the United States and will do whatever it takes to stay here. But many don't know the laws and get into trouble.
"A lot of them have became victims of scams," Ms. Marques said.
Ms. Marques said many undocumented Brazilians have stopped at her office to find out how they can get legal residency – the ever-elusive green card. Many already have fake Social Security numbers or drivers' licenses.
Ms. Marques often turns them away because there's nothing she can do.
"They will find someone who will tell them exactly what they want to hear," she said. "Some lawyers will promise them a green card. They pay thousands and thousands of dollars and they don't get a green card."
Then they come back to see Ms. Marques.
"Right now it is very, very difficult for them to legalize their status," Ms. Marques said. "The only visas that are being issued are for high tech. It seems there's really no solution for them."

few alternatives

Recently two Brazilians from the Boston area came to IAC to talk with an immigration lawyer about their situation. They both owned businesses in the United States, had families and property and were looking for a way to legalize their status.
Attorney Frederick Q. Watt, who was providing a free community service, said there wasn't much he could do for them under current laws.
But returning to Brazil is not an option for most illegal immigrants. First, there are the attorney's fees to pay back in Brazil.
And living there isn't easy.
"A large part of the population is unemployed," Mr. da Rocha said, blaming globalization and the exploitation of cheap labor by large American corporations in his native Brazil. "We are mistreated; we are abused in the work place; we have no rights."
Sounds a lot like what Brazilians find when they come here, but at least they are paid better and aspire to a better life, Mr. da Rocha said.
So, he hopes for approval of a plan proposed by President George W. Bush that would allow all undocumented immigrants to work and live here legally if they can get a job. While many advocates said the proposal offers no clear path towards legalization and would allow the government to trace and deport undocumented immigrants after three or six years, Mr. da Rocha expresses guarded optimism.
He argued that the program would allow workers to get protection, health care and access to all the resources they are now lacking.
"Imagine a 12-million-person invisible community," Mr. da Rocha said. "That creates a black market. It creates a corrupt system within the country itself."
Ms. Souza is also hopeful about an amnesty or similar legalization of undocumented immigrants.
"People are waiting for any law to be opened," she said. "They want to do the right thing, become legal, pay taxes."

This story appeared on Page B1 of The Standard-Times on June 13, 2004.

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