Brazilians arrive in waves at the US-Mexico border

EL PASO, TEXAS (AP) – Growing up along the United States (US)-Mexico border, hotel clerk Joe Luis Rubio never thought he’d be trying to communicate in Portuguese on a daily basis.

But with hundreds of Brazilians crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, each week, the Motel 6 by the airport has become a stepping stone for thousands of the Portuguese speakers on a 9,500-km journey from Brazil to El Paso to America’s East Coast.

“Thank goodness for Google Translate or we’d be lost,” said Rubio.

The quiet migration of around 17,000 Brazilians through a single US city in the past year reveals a new frontier in the Trump administration’s effort to shut down the legal immigration pathway for people claiming fear of persecution.

Like hundreds of thousands of families from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, Brazilians have been crossing the border here and applying for asylum.

Nationwide, some 18,000 Brazilians were apprehended in the fiscal year ending in October, a 600 per cent increase from the previous high in 2016. Brazilians crossing in the El Paso Sector, which covers Southern New Mexico and West Texas, accounted for 95 per cent of the apprehensions nationwide, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Helison Alvarenga, of Brazil and his six-year-old son David move away from a reception table after speaking with volunteers at the New England Community Centre, in Stoughton, Massachusetts. PHOTO: AP

On Monday, Acting CBP Chief Mark Morgan vowed to try to shut down asylum for migrants from outside Spanish-speaking Central America and South America.

“We’re seeing, again, individuals from extraterritorial countries, extra-continental, come in from Brazil, Haiti, Africans,” said Morgan.

He pledged to implement rules to bar migrants from those countries “with the same level of commitment that we came up with initiatives to address the issue with the Northern Triangle families.”

Those initiatives included making families wait in often dangerous Mexican border towns for months to apply for asylum, returning them to Mexico to await court hearings and a recent rule that effectively rejects nearly all asylum claims, regardless of merit. The result has been a mishmash of pseudo deportations to countries where migrants have never lived and where they face barriers to work or access to basic social services.

Brazilian families are not held indefinitely in detention but instead released to Annunciation House, a network of shelters, where they can stay for a few days while they arrange flights to other cities in the US.

They’re often taken to the airport in a minivan driven by Phil Porter.

“It takes a lot for somebody to pack up and leave their country, especially when they’re family oriented,” said Porter, 72, who estimates he’s ferried around 200 Brazilians. “These are economic refugees.”

Brazil plunged into its worst-ever recession in 2015 and 2016 and is headed toward its third consecutive year of roughly one per cent growth. The economy’s persistent failure to gain steam means joblessness has remained stubbornly in the double-digits, with the most recent reading at 11.6 per cent. Adding underemployment, the figure more than doubles to almost one quarter of the work force, or 27 million people.

Massachusetts officials and community leaders said they’ve felt the surge in Brazilian migrants this past year, with more families seeking immigration services and enrolling their children in public school. The state has the second largest population of Brazilians in the US after Florida, according to 2015 US Census data.

Recent immigrant Helison Alvarenga said he started working the day after arriving in Massachusetts. Already, he says, he’s earning three times more than what he earned as a mechanic in Brazil.

“Things are in pretty bad shape in Brazil right now. The only way to have a better life in Brazil is to go to college, but college is very expensive,” said Alvarenga, speaking in Portuguese through a translator.

The New England winter has also been tougher than he expected, he admitted.

“It makes me homesick. I miss the warmth and the sun,” he said. “If I won enough on a scratch ticket, I’d go back tomorrow.”

Many coming from Brazil are petitioning for asylum, citing the country’s high unemployment and persistent corruption and violence, said immigration lawyer in Waltham Luciano Park, who came from Brazil to attend law school in Boston.

But Brazilian asylum seekers face an uphill climb. Simply seeking to escape Brazil’s chronic, gang-related violence often isn’t enough to claim asylum, Park said.