Losing Its Young to an American Dream

Leandro Francisco dos Reis surveys a 416-lot subdivision site in Governador Valadares. Most lots were paid for with money from U.S.-based relatives.
Leandro Francisco dos Reis surveys a 416-lot subdivision site in Governador Valadares. Most lots were paid for with money from U.S.-based relatives. (By Fred Alves For The Washington Post)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

GOVERNADOR VALADARES, Brazil -- Maria Lierje was at the kitchen table the other day, wearing a shirt with the image of a saint she believes helps her cope with lost causes. Next to her was one such case, eating spongecake and wiping milk from the dusky adolescent shadow on his upper lip.

Guilherme, her son, is 14, so he probably has another few years before he sets off on a daredevil journey to the United States. In the meantime, she tries to remind him of the five months her oldest son spent in a Texas jail after trying to cross the Rio Grande, and of his uncle, who nearly died of hunger while trying to cross the border.

"What can I do?" she asked. "I tell him he can make a good life here, that it's not that bad. But he's a man. I can't change his mind."

Getting to the United States is a coming-of-age tradition for the men of this family, and for many others in this country, apparently: U.S. immigration officials believe Brazilians were the fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border between 2000 and 2005. Last year, only Mexicans and Hondurans are believed to have crossed in greater numbers.

Brazil's distance from the United States makes emigrating a complicated process that requires both resources and familiarity with a business sector that helps coordinate border-crossing attempts. The process became more complicated last year when, with encouragement from the United States, Mexico began requiring tourist visas of Brazilians. The result, according to U.S. Border Patrol officials, has been a dramatic decrease in apprehensions at the border -- from more than 31,000 in fiscal 2005 to an estimated 1,500 in the most recent fiscal year.

But that doesn't mean people aren't still trying. Now many travel agencies here fly customers to Guatemala, where they can enter Mexico with less risk of getting caught, or try their luck on a boat. Some even go to Portugal, from where it is said to be easier to get into the United States with false documents.

"If I could, I'd go tomorrow," Guilherme said. "All the men in the family except my father are there -- two brothers, all four of my uncles. It must be fun there."

Guilherme's image of the United States is a collage of random scraps: snapshots sent from his brothers in Florida and Massachusetts; tales of local legends, like the man who emigrated to the Boston area and now owns a $6 million house; stories of newborn children with U.S. citizenship.

Almost all Brazilians go to the United States in search of economic opportunity, but they aren't the poorest of the poor. Guilherme's family, for instance, lives in a modestly comfortable home. If he stayed in this city, he would probably work in his parents' market, supplementing a modest income with occasional gifts from relatives abroad. The prospect holds no charm for him.

"I got this picture once, from my brother, of a hurricane that hit near where he lives in Florida," he said. "It was so cool."

In America, he believes, even the disasters are beautiful.

A City Full of Dollars

Across the railroad tracks on the outskirts of the city, armies of yellow construction machines crawl over denuded fields. Workers dig ditches in 90-degree heat. A total of 416 lots have been offered for sale in this subdivision, and all have been pre-sold. Nearly every one was bought with money sent home from the United States, according to local officials.


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