Accelerated migration to the US empties the inner city of MG

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Ana Paula Souza, her husband and the couple’s baby son said goodbye in tears and left for the United States. They are one of hundreds of families who have left the small town of Alpercata, Minas Gerais, in recent months.

Residents of Alpercata, located in the Governador Valadares region, have been traveling north for decades. But as residents face a pandemic that has wiped out jobs, devalued the real and sparked double-digit inflation, once-moderate migration from this poor, okra-producing region has turned into an exodus.

Municipal data suggest that this year hundreds of families in Alpercata, with a population of approximately 7,500 inhabitants, took their children out of school and sold their goods to pay for the trip to the United States. There is a lack of employees in the city’s bakery. Public officials left their posts. There is a lack of players for the local football teams.

“Alpercata is being deflated,” says Ana Paula, 23. “Everyone is leaving.” Today she lives in Orlando, Florida, and bakes cakes to supplement what her husband earns in construction and pay off part of the $15,000 (R$84,000) debt they took on to pay a coyote.

The rush to leave Alpercata and neighboring towns demonstrates the still present impact of a pandemic that left more than 600,000 people dead in Brazil, a number second only to the United States.

It also reflects the increase seen this year in migration to the US from Latin America, a region marked by inequality, violence and misgovernment and which was heavily affected by the virus. Brazilians, Haitians and Venezuelans in record numbers are pouring into the US southern border, swelling the ranks of asylum seekers hailing from more traditional migration origins like Mexico and Central America.

Data from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency) reveal that Brazilians ranked sixth among the most held nationalities in fiscal year 2021. A record 56,735 Brazilian migrants were barred, increasing the pressure on President Joe Biden to curb the flow of immigrants.

It will not be easy. The booming US job market and the strong dollar, which makes remittances sent back to Brazil worth more, prove difficult to resist.

Unlike past waves of migration, dominated by poor young men returning home soon, this one has attracted white-collar professionals who will be more difficult to replace in Brazil, officials, academics and police told Reuters. Nurses, engineers and even municipal employees with guaranteed jobs have left the country, in many cases with no plans to return. Nearly 5% of Alpercata’s 162 prefecture employees, the county’s main employer, have migrated to the US this year, officials said, citing county figures.

Many take their families, capitalizing on an American asylum policy that allows migrants of some nationalities, including Brazil, to remain in the US while their asylum applications are processed — a legal step that can take years. Data from the CBP show that no less than 99% of Brazilian families detained on the US southern border in fiscal year 2021 were able to enter the country to take their cases to immigration courts.

The consequence can be seen in the municipal schools of Alpercata, which, according to the municipal secretary of Education, Lucélia Pimentel, lost 10% of their 926 students this year. More students leave every day, according to her.

Many of these families end up joining Brazilian diaspora communities in Florida or Massachusetts, filling some of the 10.4 million job openings in the United States – an almost record number.

“Americans don’t like to work, so there are plenty of jobs for immigrants,” says Ana Paula Souza, who has recently settled in Orlando.

National market

The signs that Alpercata is shrinking are clear.

In early November, a backhoe was parked in the town hall’s courtyard, where dark green mango trees flaunt their fruit swaying like Christmas ornaments. Officials said the machine had been idle since its only trained operator had emigrated a few weeks earlier.

In his workroom on the second floor, the municipal secretary for Sports, Jorge Estefesson, showed a visitor a wall decorated with photos of past football teams in the city. Reciting names, he pointed to more than a dozen players who now live in the United States.

Estfesson says he’s having a hard time finding adult players for the annual football tournament. There are also fewer child players. According to the secretary, there are 60 children enrolled in his soccer school, two-thirds below the number of five years ago. “Our fear is that in the future we will be a city for the elderly, without young people”, he says.

Officials in Washington are also concerned. Most Brazilian migrants arrive in the US via Mexico, where they enter as tourists, without a visa requirement. Some travel by plane to Mexican border towns and then turn themselves in to US authorities to seek asylum. To bar its access to the border, the US pressured Mexico to end the visa waiver for Brazilians.

On November 26, Mexico did just that, announcing that by mid-December it will require a visa to enter the country for all Brazilian travelers. Brazilians arriving by land or sea need to obtain traditional visas, which forces them to go to a Mexican consulate. Air travelers can apply online for the so-called electronic visa.

This action has been effective in deterring other would-be migrants. Since September, when Mexico began requiring visas for people coming from Ecuador, the number of Ecuadorians detained at the US southern border has dropped sharply. CBP data show that 743 Ecuadorians were detained in October, against more than 17,500 in August.

But a US official and four Brazilians told Reuters that Brazil’s weakened economy will likely continue to drive Brazilian migrants north.

In October, Reuters reported that Brazilian coyotes, also known as “consuls”, are profiting from the country’s difficulties. Police say many of Brazil’s biggest coyotes come from the eastern region of Minas Gerais, which encompasses Alpercata. Today they are aggressively expanding into new and distant territories in the North and Midwest of Brazil, areas that did not have a long tradition of migration to the US.

This is what the Federal Police of Governador Valadares says, a town of almost 300,000 inhabitants a half-hour drive from Alpercata. “Today, this is a national market,” says federal investigator Cristiano Campidelli, former head of the Federal Police in Governador Valadares who investigated illicit trafficking.

“Valadolares”

Even so, the epicenter for now is still Minas, a state rich in minerals whose ties to the US can be traced back to the American demand for mica used in planes and radios during World War II. According to the mayor of Valadares, André Merlo, almost everyone in this region of the country has a relative in Boca Raton or Boston. Local inhabitants nicknamed the city “Valadolares”, due to the dollars earned by emigrants and sent to Brazil.

The strong US currency is an additional attraction for migrants. Since the end of 2018, when right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro was elected, the dollar has appreciated more than 50% against the real.

Migration only increased under the Bolsonaro government: the number of Brazilians detained on the US southern border rose by more than 3,500% during his presidency. Today, according to data from the Central Bank, Brazilians abroad send between US$ 300 million (R$ 1.7 billion) and US$ 400 million (R$ 2.3 billion) home each month. In the first two years of the Bolsonaro Presidency, remittances were between US$ 200 million (R$ 1.1 billion) and US$ 300 million (R$ 1.7 billion).

While those dollars are welcome, engineers and health professionals are currently lacking in Governador Valadares, according to the mayor.

Even the cheese bread is in danger of disappearing from the little Alpercata. The Chega Mais bakery is located near an evangelical church whose logo bears an American flag. Its owner, Valquíria Ribeiro, says she is having difficulty retaining trained employees; since the beginning of the pandemic, it has already lost three to the United States.

At one of the city’s high schools, caretaker Egnalda Oliveira makes preparations for her own trip north. Widowed, mother of a teenager, she said the death of her husband and parents, coupled with the sharp rise in inflation, left her struggling to survive. Mother and son recently obtained their first passports. This pleased 16-year-old Lucas, who has seen many of his friends leave. “If I could, I’d leave tomorrow,” says Egnalda.

Translation by Clara Allain

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