Andréa was a corporate lawyer in Rio de Janeiro until she was laid off a year ago. Despite 15 years of career experience Andréa struggled to find a new job in Brazil’s shrinking labor market, so she sold her belongings and temporarily moved herself to Queens in search of new opportunities.
“As a lawyer I can’t exercise my profession here,” she says, “I would have to reinvent myself if I stay.”
Andréa is not alone. As a result of Brazil’s worsening economic recession the jobless rate has risen for the third straight period bringing total unemployment to 11.8 percent, compared to last year’s 8.7 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. This is pushing qualified professionals to look for opportunities abroad and is bringing highly educated Brazilians to New York, the top destination for Brazilian migrants since the1980s.
Since the Census Bureau started listing Brazilian as a resident category in 1960, they have been registered as a slow-growing but solid diaspora in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. Most of them settled in Florida, Massachusetts, and in Greater New York, where Brazilians formed particularly strong communities in Astoria and Newark.
Most recently, during a prosperous decade that ended in 2014, immigration to the U.S. didn’t just slow down it actually decreased, momentarily reversing the decades-long trend. But now that Brazil’s short-lived economic boom has turned to recession, jobs are disappearing, and with them, a growing number of skilled Brazilians.
Vitoria Pinhas, a Brazilian immigration attorney based in New York, has noticed the new surge in migrants. “I am getting about 40 percent more calls from Brazilians trying to immigrate to the U.S.,” Pinhas says. And these are only the Brazilians looking for legal channels into America.
Most Brazilians come on tourist or student visas hoping to find a way to stay. “Once they are here they can look for jobs and attend interviews,” Pinhas explains. “Many come expecting to find a job,” says Pinhas “but it is not that easy.”
Rafaella is one of those migrants affected by the resulting lack of economic opportunity in Brazil. Until this past August she was a Systems Analyst for Tim, one of Brazil’s leading cell phone companies. After being laid off she applied for work as an accomplished professional backed by a masters degree but was unable to land a new job. So, like Andréa, she now lives in a small apartment in Queens and spends most of her time studying English.
“I am letting things happen,” she says. “I would like to stay here studying English and focus on my career, but many things could happen.”
Being comfortable with chance might be a natural consequence of feeling hoodwinked by Brazil’s economy. Rafaella, like her fellow contemporaries, grew up in a thriving Brazil. A decade ago, when she was graduating high school and college, the economy was booming and along with it an optimistic middle class.
In fact, up until 2014, when the economy started to crumble, Brazil was considered a promising BRIC economy and foreign direct investment was at an all time high, reaching its peak in 2013 with $64 bn. By 2015 foreign direct investment dropped to $56 bn.
Things don’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. Brazil’s economy is predicted to keep shrinking. The economy contracted by 3.8 percent in 2015, and it is forecast to reach 4.3 percent this year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
A lack of confidence in Brazil’s financial future has long-driven migrants from its shores, but Brazil now has other factors that are also driving migration. Maxine Margolis, American anthropologist and author of Goodbye Brazil: Émigres from the land of Soccer and Samba, has been studying Brazilian migration since the 1980s.
“Many are not only dissatisfied with the economic crisis,” she says looking at today’s patterns, “but also with it’s disputatious politics and the growing feeling of insecurity in some of the nation’s largest urban centers.”
And as educated Brazilians arrive in the New York area, creating a new migrant experience, some for now and some forever, there is a group that remains steady: immigrants who take odd jobs or work under the table in their quest for economic stability.
Aninha is one of those Brazilian migrants. Aninha worked as a flight attendant for domestic Brazilian airline Passaredo Linhas Aéreas in Ribeirão Preto until she was laid off over a year ago. The airline laid off another 300 workers this past July.
After looking for a new job for months, and a quick stint in New York, Aninha asked a friend married to an American for a place to stay. A week later she was in New Jersey with $500 in her pocket.
“I had to say goodbye to my family and dear friends,” Aninha says, “the first week was really hard.” She now works as a house cleaner and a babysitter, jobs for which she doesn’t need a work visa. And was waiting for her boyfriend Mateus to join her in Newark.
“He wasn’t making a good living in Brazil, the country is in a serious crisis” she says. “So we are going to try life here.”
Mateus left his current job in human resources for better opportunities and love, but it won’t be all roses. Aninha says he will likely work as a house painter or electrician since he won’t have legal status. Making Mateus a new college-educated Brazilian arriving in the U.S. to give the American dream a chance.