Aline Pereira Leite has been lucky since she left Brazil 27 months ago to work on Martha’s Vineyard, and she knows it.
This pretty, softly spoken, 23-year-old woman is sitting in the living room of a sumptuous Island home. The view through the floor-to-ceiling windows is spectacular: snow-dusted trees down to the shore of Lake Tashmoo and, beyond it, Vineyard Sound. It is a glorious sunny morning.
But she sits with her back to the view. She acknowledges her good fortune in finding a job cleaning and organizing this house for owners who are not there for most of the year. But she is sad, too. And homesick. And lonely.
Nine days ago her boyfriend gave up on his American dream and joined the mass exodus which has seen 2,000 to 3,000 Brazilians leave the Island in the past couple of years to head home, probably never to return.
Ms. Leite is staying for now, for the job and for the people who gave it to her. Her employers told her to treat their home as if it were her own. They even gave her the use of a car. But she does not drive it, because she has no license.
The impossibility of being able to drive legally was one of the factors which drove her boyfriend, Sergio, to leave. There were many other factors too, she says, which contributed to his decision and those of many others to give up.
Among them are the increasing difficulty of getting work, falling pay rates, lack of social assistance, the receding chances of immigration law reform here, a healthy economy back home and the rapidly-deteriorating exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Brazilian real.
“Each one has their combination of reasons,” she says. “Sergio went back for money reasons, and because he was homesick. And it was very hard not being able to drive.
“I want to stay for two years more. I have plans to work to realize my goals in my country,” she says
First among those goals is helping her mother, by sending back the money to finish building a house. To that end she cleaned windows, cleaned houses, did restaurant work and some babysitting before falling into her current job.
“I feel very lucky,” she says.
But for a large number of other Brazilians, both documented and undocumented, America is no longer a lucky country.
Fausto da Rocha, founder of the Boston-area Brazilian Immigrant Center, estimates that there were about 230,000 Brazilians in Massachusetts, legally or otherwise. Of those, he said, 5,000 to 7,000 will leave this year.
“At least five per cent of the people [statewide] have gone,” he said. “Five to seven thousand have left this year, and I believe next year it will be worse”
On the Island, the situation is even more dramatic; informed estimates are that the Brazilian population has declined by between 30 and 50 per cent over the past couple of years, and was still falling.
“Late spring of 2006, it was like 6,000 people. But of those, about 1,000 went back even before the summer, because they couldn’t find good jobs or a place to stay,” said Elio Silva, owner of North Star, a Brazilian retail store in Edgartown.
“At the end of 2006 more people left. It was a huge number, like 1,800 people. People are always coming and going with the seasons, but this time a lot of them never came back.
“This summer [the population] would have been like 3,000 to 4,000 Brazilians.”
A major driver of the change is the relative economic fortunes of America and Brazil. Five years ago, the U.S. dollar was worth about four Brazilian reals. Now its value is less than 1.8 reals.
But even the huge change in the exchange rate is only part of the financial picture; the Brazilian economy is expanding, the U.S. is tanking. Relative pay rates have changed.
Said Mr. Silva: “Here, people are not making as much money as they used to. People could make $15 an hour washing dishes 12 or 13 years ago. Now they get $8 an hour.
“So, people can make only half of what they used to make, and when they send it home, it is worth half what it used to be worth,” he said.
Given that most Brazilians are here for only a relatively short term, to make money to finance their lives and those of their families at home, this is a powerful incentive to give up — if not on life in America, then at least on life on the Vineyard.
Mr. Silva said many had left the Island and moved to the mainland where the cost of living was lower.
“A lot have also moved off-Island,” he said, “because of the real estate prices. A lot have moved to Falmouth and other places. But many have just left the country, and they’re not coming back, and others are not coming to replace them.
“There are less jobs and lower pay here,” he said. “There are more jobs and higher pay in Brazil. It’s the law of supply and demand,” he said.
But as well as economic forces pulling Brazilians home, Mr. Silva and others said, there were social forces pushing them. “Since 9/11, all immigrants have been treated like potential terrorists. People felt much less welcome than they were before,” he said.
“I know people who have green cards who are going back. I have friends who are citizens and they’re going back, because things here are so hostile, even though they are now Americans.”
Immigrants also are taking the blame for the fact that Amercans’ living standards had stagnated over recent years as the forces of globalization encourage corporations to move operations offshore and suppress domestic wages.
“It’s like the American people are looking for someone to blame, so they blame immigrants, not Dick Cheney, moving Halliburton’s headquarters to Dubai, right?” Mr. Silva said.
In Boston, Mr. da Rocha said a lot of Brazilians had held on in the hope that the state would allow undocumented workers to get drivers’ licenses and that the federal government would pass reforms to the immigration system.
“But the Governor never did anything to resolve the driving problem and now we see increasing collaboration between local police, state police and the immigration [authorities].
“People find the harassment increasing and a lot of people have decided to go home for that reason.”
Mr. da Rocha said, and other sources agreed, that such “harassment” was a particular concern on the Vineyard.
Ronei Rezende, pastor of the World Revival Church, said members of his congregation had experienced increasing problems with police over recent years. “Police are stopping people in the street, asking for documents,” he said.
“About five months ago, members of my congregation were stopped outside the Masonic Temple [which is being used temporarily while a new church is being built on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs] about 9:30 to 10 p.m., and the police questioned them about paperwork.
“Sometimes people have done nothing wrong, and they just stop them.”
Others, including Ms. Leite, said the police were not a major problem, but all agreed the failure of governments at all levels to deal with immigrant issues had encouraged the outflow.
Jadivan da Silva, a long-time Island resident who works for a landscaping company, said he had watched with frustration for the past two years as the federal government dithered over immigration reform.
“I’ve waited for almost seven years. I will have to wait four or five more years to get a green card. People can’t wait that long,” he said.
“Everything has gone up. Used to be you could send $100 for example, and for that you could feed your family. Today it’s more like $300. And then you have the bills here. You make just enough money to survive, can’t save any more.
“So people go back.”
Said Mr. da Rocha: “A lot of Brazilians have high hopes for immigration reform, but immigration reform is not happening. Now they pay high mortgages, get low wages, they find hostility.
“People put in the balance the oppression and the amount they can save, and some people feel it is better to move back. They’ve lost the American dream.”
Which is sad for them. But, says Mr. da Rocha, it could be sad for the non-Brazilian community too.
He spoke of a vicious circle relating to the mortgage market crisis. Some Brazilians have lost homes — because of their circumstances, they are more likely than most to have taken out sub-prime loans. beyond that, many work in construction and landscaping, where work is drying up. And most of them are, or were, renters.
“I believe it will affect the real estate market. A lot of houses will be vacant. I believe a lot of rental owners will lose their houses.
“Next year this [sub-prime] mortgage crisis will be worse. There are going to be 3,000 to 5,000 houses vacant across the state and the landlords won’t be able to pay the mortgages,” he predicted.
“And next spring a lot of companies are going to face a difficult time to find people to work.”