How immigration will change Brazil

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As we're stuck in traffic on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo's most famous boulevard, the cab driver interrupts our small talk, struggling to hide his disbelief and skepticism. "But why, after having completed your education abroad, would you want to come back and live here, in a third world country, rather than in Europe or America?" Even after many years, fellow university professors politely inquire how many months I intend to conduct research in Brazil before supposedly returning to the safe and cozy environment of an American university. The notion that an educated foreigner would decide to pursue his or her career in Brazil - for purely professional reasons, that is - still strikes Brazilians as difficult to digest. There has always been the odd gringo who fell in love with a Brazilian and who ended up in Brazil, but they were numerically insignificant. For decades, going abroad was seen as the ultimate dream for young educated Brazilians. "Out there," (as Brazilians say when they refer to any place outside of Brazil's borders), was the place to go, so seeing young, mobile foreigners, who could find a job anywhere on earth, arrive and settle in Brazil can be outright disconcerting. Yet the number of foreigners is rising, largely in the private sector, lured by spectacular economic growth, competitive salaries and a more Western society than in any of the other BRIC countries.

From a historical point of view, Brazil is, not unlike the United States, a country built on the backs of hard-working immigrants from Europe and slaves from Africa (although mixing with the native population was more common than in the US). Brazil is thus a true immigrant nation, and its rich history of recurrent waves of immigration from places such as Portugal, Africa, Italy, Germany, Poland and Japan have turned the country into the culturally and ethnically diverse melting pot that shaped its national identity. In the course I currently teach, my students' names point to ancestors from Japan, Hungary, Portugal, Italy, Germany, China, Lebanon, Spain and the Netherlands - a degree of diversity comparable to any major US university.

Yet despite the important role immigration has played during Brazil's history, Brazil no longer receives outsiders with the ease other countries such as the United States do. Few immigrants have arrived in Brazil after 1990. Today Brazil strikes the visitor as fairly isolated from the rest of the world. Brazilians say this can be explained by the geographic distance between them and the rest of the world. The Amazon forest in the West and the Atlantic Ocean in the East created formidable barriers for centuries. While the United States proved to be a magnet for immigrants with its dynamic economy and liberal and socially mobile society throughout the second half of the 20th century, Brazil's economy stagnated, its government driving it even further into isolation with the import-substitution model during the Cold War. Brazil's immigration policy makes it difficult for foreigners to work in Brazil. While immigrants in the United States can eventually turn into US-American citizens, obtaining Brazilian citizenship is difficult. This is all the more paradoxical since the lack of skilled workers is one of the key obstacles that may keep Brazil from sustaining its growth in the long term.

Yet even cumbersome immigration rules cannot undo the fact that Brazil's recent economic miracle attracts a growing number of skilled immigrations from all over the world. Language proves a significant barrier, as fluency in Portuguese is an absolute necessity in order to find work in Brazil. But it also presents a golden opportunity for foreigners willing to learn the language, as Brazilian companies desperately seek engineers, IT experts and finance professionals who speak both Portuguese and English. As The Economist recently noted, Brazil is one of the only countries with a shortage of PhDs. Culture matters, too. A European or American engineer with job offers from companies in São Paulo, Dubai, Delhi and Beijing, with similar financial and career perspectives, may opt for Brazil as it is by far the easiest country to integrate. The number of foreigners seeking jobs in Brazil is growing, and is likely to increase further. Not a single week passes without friends or friends' friends from Italy, Portugal, Greece or the United States inquiring about job opportunities in Brazil.

The growing number of job seekers from abroad will change the way Brazil relates to foreigners. Visitors from abroad are well liked in Brazil, because they are few, they are rich, and they usually do not stay for long. In the future, immigrants will be plenty, relatively poor (as they are beginning their careers), and intent on settling in Brazil. Both skilled and unskilled workers will seek to benefit from Brazil's rise. Cleaning ladies in Brazil's large cities will no longer hail from the country's poor rural areas, but from Argentina, Paraguay, and possibly Portugal and Spain. While it may take decades until immigration to Brazil reaches proportions known in Europe, it remains to be seen how well Brazil can deal with a new wave of immigration and the challenges that come with it. Brazil's public schools, for example, offer few extra courses to help non-Portuguese speaking students catch up. Illegal immigration in São Paulo is already a problem, but it is not yet part of the public debate. Yet, despite all the difficulties, Brazil's past is likely to help it master the challenges immigration brings with it, and cherish its new role as the land of opportunity and destination of immigrants from all over the world.

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Photo credit: Brazil Immigration