What I learned about immigration from volunteering at a Brazilian NGO

Before coming to Brazil, I worked at a refugee-resettlement nonprofit, helped film a documentary about migration from Africa into Italy, and co-led a service-learning trip to a largely undocumented community in Athens, Georgia. All of this to say: I care about migration and have spent some time learning about it. So since I first arrived here, learning more about immigrants in Brazil–and the systems in place to process them—has been a priority for me.

Recently I started volunteering at the Centro de Atendimento ao Migrante Caxias do Sul (CAM), an immigration center that serves clients from all over southern Brazil. The clients are mostly Haitian or Senegalese, but I’ve met a Polish dude and some Turkish families, and there may be some Venezuelans arriving in the coming weeks. I admittedly don’t contribute all that much—I’m hamstrung by my limited Portuguese and lack of knowledge about Brazilian immigration law—but I’m using the opportunity to learn more about both, firsthand.

My takeaway so far? Like so many other aspects of life here, Brazil’s migration policy has so much potential but is hampered by incessant and stifling bureaucracy.


Immigration: Brazil’s ideal

Last May, Brazil issued a sweeping new law declaring the principles and guidelines that would govern its immigration policy. In my opinion, it’s pretty great. Although its actual implementation may be another question altogether, the fact that the government has at least articulated these as ideals seems significant.

I’ve excerpted some of them (via Google Translate, with some light edits for clarity) here:

I – universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights;

II – repudiation and prevention of xenophobia, racism and any form of discrimination;

III – non-criminalization of migration;

IV – non-discrimination due to the criteria or procedures by which someone entered Brazil;

V – promotion of regular entry and regularization of documents;

VI – humanitarian reception;

VIII – guarantee of the right to family reunion;

IX – equality of treatment and opportunity for migrants and their families;

X – social and economic inclusion of migrants through public policies;

XI – migrants’ free and equal access to services, programs and social benefits, public goods, education, vital legal assistance, work, housing, banking and social security;

XII – promotion and dissemination of migrants’ rights, freedoms, guarantees and obligations;

XVII – total protection of and attention to the best interests of migrant children and adolescents;

XXII – repudiation of collective deportation or deportation practices.

Taken together, these guidelines and principles paint a broad picture of inclusion for migrants in Brazil. The goal seems to be to affirm migrants’ rights and streamline their integration into Brazil’s economy and society. I personally think this is a great approach to take to migration, for reasons I’ll detail later, and I can’t help feeling a little envious of it. To my knowledge, the US has no similar federal legislation outlining the values that determine migration policy.

How immigration works in the US

Before I describe how Brazil’s immigration system works, I want to briefly outline how immigration and refugee resettlement works in the US. This isn’t a complete guide, but it reflects the processes I worked with during my time at the International Rescue Committee.

So first, there’s the issue of language. I’ve noticed that people who complain about immigration tend not to use these words very carefully. So to be clear:

  • A migrant is someone who moves from one place to another (either within or between countries), generally for economic reasons like seasonal work. I’m a migrant in Brazil!
  • An immigrant is someone who makes the conscious decision to leave the country where they were born and move to a new country with the intent of creating a new life there.
  • A refugee, under US law, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” (Someone who has fled their home but not their country for these reasons is called an internally displaced person.)
  • An asylum-seeker is someone who is requesting international protection within the United States for the above reasons, but whose claim has not been legally determined. This request needs to be made at the border of or within the United States. Not all requests are approved, but those who are granted asylum are called asylees.

The most common path to becoming a refugee is to register with the UNHCR, perhaps at a refugee camp. Along with US embassies and some NGOs, UNHCR recommends eligible refugees to the US government. These cases are received and processed by one of nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) around the world, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). RSCs collect biographic and background information on the refugees and their situations.

Eligible cases are then forwarded to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, managed by the Department of Homeland Security), which reviews the information and conducts an in-person interview. This stage also includes rigorous background checks with other US security agencies.

If approved, refugees then undergo health screening (no contagious diseases allowed). Those who pass are matched with resettlement agencies in the US and are given a cultural orientation before they travel. After a final background check, refugees travel to the US (with a loan from the International Organization for Migration), and are met at the airport by workers from resettlement agencies, who then support the refugees during their first months in the US.

This entire process could take three years, and that was before Trump gummed up the works with his “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” executive order in January 2017. I am incredibly unsympathetic toward this order, because in my experience the Venn diagram of “people who think we need to have more refugee vetting” and “people who understand the refugee vetting process” consists of two completely separate circles. The vetting process was already considered very safe by the chief of refugee admissions for USCSIS, even before the order was signed. (That link is to a This American Life transcript; the story in question is in Act Five.) The hardest way to enter the US is as a refugee.

Meanwhile, the path to asylum is a little more straightforward. If you request asylum proactively, you just have to interview with an USCIS asylum officer (after being fingerprinted and run through background/security checks). If you request asylum defensively (in response to being caught without proper documentation, for example), you appear in court and have to make your case before an Immigration Judge. By law, you should have your status determined within 180 days of making your application, but in practice, the process can sometimes take much longer.

After a year in the US as a refugee or asylee, you can apply for your green card, or lawful permanent residence status. Basically this status affords you all the rights of full US citizenship, minus the ability to vote in federal elections. Green cards can also be obtained through your employer or by being an immediate family member of a US citizen. If you want to become a US citizen yourself, you can go through the naturalization process after three to five years of holding a green card. If you pass more background checks, another USCIS interview, and English and civics tests, congratulations! You too can become a US citizen.

Of course, there’s a lot more to US immigration than refugees and illegal border-crossings. In 2016, the two countries sending the most immigrants to the US were India and China, and a 2014 report found that two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants who arrived that year were overstaying their visas. This isn’t a complete picture; there are tons of other ways to enter and/or work in the US. But I think this understanding is sufficient to understand the differences in the system in Brazil.


A sign in the lobby at CAM: “For the migrant, the homeland is the land that gives him bread”

My work with CAM

As I’ve seen over the last couple months at CAM, Brazil’s approach to migration is very different from that of the US. Because I’ve been spending the majority of time volunteering in CAM’s legal department, I’ve seen a lot of these differences firsthand.

First, the US’s refugee/asylee dichotomy just doesn’t exist here. It doesn’t matter if you apply for refuge from inside or outside Brazil; you’re referred to as a refugee. Asylum here refers specifically to political asylum for high-level politicians and activists, and I think you literally need to get the president to sign off on your case.

Additionally, Brazil doesn’t really formally “resettle” refugees in the same way the US does. The vast majority of refugees in Brazil arrive on a tourist visa and then request refugee status inside the country; they don’t go through a formal process like they do before entering in the US. Brazil does have that reception system in place, but it has only formally resettled a couple hundred refugees over the past decade (compared to hundreds of thousands in the US). Everyone else has to figure out their own way.

That being said, Brazil’s immigration law goes beyond just “refugee.” There is also a category for “humanitarian visa,” given in cases of environmental or economic crises that aren’t included in the UNHCR’s definition of refugee. (The US has something similar—Temporary Protected Status—but as the name suggests, it’s temporary, and the Trump administration is trying hard to roll back nearly every TPS program [despite some of them having gone on for nearly 20 years].) As far as I can tell, right now it’s mostly just given to people from Haiti


Refugee requests by country, c/o NEXO

In fact, Brazil has a lot of different standards for immigrants from different countries. Haitians can enter Brazil through the humanitarian visa program, Venezuelans (along with other countries that border Brazil to the north) can enter through the Fronteiriço agreement, and other South Americans enjoy increased freedom of movement through the MERCOSUL agreement. Citizens of other countries need to find another way in (such as through work sponsorship), while their refugee claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Especially compared to the US, Brazil is super lenient about letting immigrants stay in Brazil. Get caught entering the country without proper documents? Border police give you a notice saying you have 60 days to regularize your status. Need to regularize your status? Try applying as a refugee—the immigration office has 13 workers and gets 1,000 applications a day, so your request can take up to five years to be processed. Simply applying gets you a protocolo (sometimes within the same day), proof of your application that lets you begin to operate as part of Brazilian society: get a work card, open a bank account, apply for a CPF (like a social security number that is key to doing anything here), etc. Plus, if you get denied, you can always file for recourse, which will sometimes buy you an additional year.

The work I do at CAM

I spend nearly all of my time at CAM shadowing the legal department, which basically consists of filling out computer forms on the website of the Federal Police. We mostly request humanitarian visas and prepare documents for family reunification. This means a lot of nitpicky paperwork and a Federal Police website that is sometimes down without explanation but always super annoying to use.

Around Caxias, the majority of new immigrants are from Haiti or Senegal. I met exactly three parties who fell outside these two countries: a Polish dude applying for refugee status (I gathered because of persecution for his sexuality), a family from Uruguay trying to renew their documents, and some women from Turkey who came in to distribute treats to the kids in the school that CAM’s attached to. Many of the clients we see don’t actually live in Caxias, as apparently it’s easier to find work in the smaller cities nearby.


The legal department office at CAM

I think most of the value I’ve brought to CAM has been by sharing my experiences with immigration in the US. I’ve offered observations in day-to-day conversations, but my biggest project was a long presentation about US’s migration policies that I gave to the entire staff during one of their weekly meetings. Its outlook was pretty bleak—border police have illegally turned away asylum-seekers, and the Trump administration has cut the refugee ceiling to an all-time low.

“It’s good that you’re here,” one of CAM’s lawyers told me when I first talked with them. “So many people see what the US is doing and think, if they all support that there, we should do it here too.”

Some migration-adjacent thoughts that didn’t fit anywhere else

I don’t know how to weave these reflections into the rest of this post, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them:

  • Having to speak Portuguese with other non-native speakers has been a humbling experience. We talk a lot about English as a universal language, but I’ve never experienced firsthand what that meant. In CAM, I finally realized how difficult it can be to converse with someone who shares a spoken language but approaches it from a very different angle.
    • Sometimes the clients and I have enough difficulty communicating in Portuguese that we have to speak through Mari, who understands both of our respective stabs at Portuguese better than we do.
  • Immigrants can face a lot of racism in Caxias. I’ve tried to do an informal poll of the people who pass through our office about how they like Brazil, and the results are mixed. I don’t ask about racism directly, but it’s occasionally brought up; you can read about some reports that have been brought to the media/police here.
    • The only racial profiling I’ve personally witnessed was on an overnight bus to Caxias from Foz do Iguaçu. Our bus was stopped at a police checkpoint, where gun-toting military police climbed aboard. At this point, it was only me, an older white dude (who apparently is in charge of some huge ping-pong tournament in Latin America?), and a black dude on the bus. The police (who couldn’t have seen anything from the outside, because we’d all been sitting in darkness) made a beeline for the black passenger, made him show ID, and told him to get his luggage from the hold so they could go through it. The police said nothing to me or the other white guy. Soon they got off, the black passenger got back on, and we continued on our way.
  •  The hottest migration debate right now is how to accommodate refugees from Venezuela. They’re straining already-poor communities in the north, which is leading to violence against them. A couple hundred Venezuelans were recently bussed down to nearby capital Porto Alegre, but how they would be accommodated hadn’t been clear—keeping in mind the temperature differences from equatorial Venezuela and Brazil’s chilly south. Caxias ended up not accepting any.
    • Fun fact: the most moderate immigration coverage I’ve ever seen on Breitbart was about Venezuelan refugees in Brazil. Although refugees are Bad, socialism is Very Bad, and so apparently people fleeing it is totally understandable.

My ideal: a synthesis

The way I see it: people are always going to cross borders, legally or otherwise. I think the purpose of migration policy should be to facilitate this process and protect the safety of citizens and migrants alike. (This is not to say I’m for open borders, which I see as untenable and also a strawman argument to dismiss the ideas of people who want to talk about the benefits of migration.)

When it comes to migration, I think Brazil’s legislative priorities are great. By integrating migrants into society—by regularizing them and giving them the tools (such as work cards) to become productive citizens—I think you can avoid a lot of the dangers that come with immigration. Undocumented people are vulnerable people, and vulnerable people are can easily become exploited or outcast or desperate people.

However, I think the US’s resources for aiding immigrants (and not just refugees) are more robust, and our processing system, while still sluggish and labyrinthine, at least seems more transparent than Brazil’s.

Researchers agree that on the whole, immigrants (legal or otherwise) are not increasing US crime rates and are net contributors to the economy. Clearly, economics and crime are sprawling, complicated topics that depend very much on how you define and measure terms. But I think that these results at least suggest that there are real benefits to immigration, and countries around the world would do well to consider them.

I don’t know where I’ll end up once I leave Brazil, but I do know that leaving CAM won’t mean the end of my work with migration.

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