Back to Brazil 

The construction industry brought a wave of Brazilian immigrants to the Lowcountry. But now that the housing market is drying up, they're returning home.

click to enlarge Goose Creek high school student Natalia Ribeiro Plans to return to Brazil before the end of the year - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Goose Creek high school student Natalia Ribeiro Plans to return to Brazil before the end of the year

"Everyone take three steps up," says Rony Brasil, lead singer of the group Arriba Saia, to the crowd at the Amazon Grill. The audience obeys, edging closer to the stage until the band is surrounded on three sides. Around 150 people — young men in tight shirts and imitation designer jeans, women in strapless dresses and high-heels — begin to dance and sing along to Arriba Saia's percussive, twangy sounds, forro music from northeastern Brazil. Outside, close to where two sheriff's deputies waited earlier with cars idling, watching for trouble that would never appear, two women wearing dark trench coats are waiting for their cue to enter through the side door, jump on stage, and reveal their skimpy, flashy costumes. There is an element of truth to the stereotype — Brazilians, in their great majority, know how to throw a party.

But all is not well in Goose Creek's Brazilian community, which is centered around Red Bank Highway, in apartment complexes close to the Charleston Weapons Station. The screaming headlines of The Brazilian Post, the North Charleston-based newspaper, say it all: "South Carolina closes its doors to immigrants," reads one in Portuguese, while another, more practically geared, offers advice, "Need a job for when you get back to Brazil?"

There are no firm statistics, but everyone in this tight-knit community seems to agree on one thing: Brazilians are leaving the Lowcountry area in droves, propelled by the downturn in the construction industry, the decreasing value of the dollar, and the fear of a statewide crackdown on illegal immigration.

The construction of a community

"I wanted to live here, but without papers, the situation is difficult," said Henrique Ferreira, a construction worker. "Here you can't have a driver's license. Next, you won't be able to leave your home. The circle is getting tighter."

A slim man with a thin, weary voice, Ferreira came to the United States without a visa, in hopes of finding a job and a better life for himself. He found work installing vinyl siding and watched, over 10 years, as the Brazilian community in the area grew from a population of several hundred to what is now widely believed to be about 5,000. But sometime last year, around the time the subprime mortgage market tanked but before some state politicians pounced on the immigration issue, he says that he and his fellow workers saw their hours and pay begin to diminish. There were fewer houses to build, and no one was buying the ones they had finished.

At the same time, the dollar continued to plunge. From 2003 to 2007, the dollar decreased in value by 50 percent in relation to Brazil's currency, the Real, which meant that the money many workers sent home to their families was worth less with each passing month. Ferreira still has a job, but he's not making as much as he once did. After a decade in the Lowcounty, he's finally thinking of calling it quits.

"It's very slow now, and it's difficult. I have a lot of bills to pay, and if I don't work, there is no way I can stay," he says.

According to Douglas Woodward, professor of economics and director of the Division of Research at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, Ferreira's experience is typical for many immigrants, as the downturn in housing and construction sends ripples throughout the immigrant labor pool.

"I think it's going to have a big effect. I think we're debating this big surge in immigration without realizing how much of it was driven by construction," he says.

Woodward says that construction drew as many as 35 to 40 percent of the Latino labor force to South Carolina, including some Brazilians, and that the current market downturn means many of them will be stuck without jobs.

"It's going to close up those employment opportunities, and I think that will have the effect of leading to an outflow of migration rather than an inflow of migration over the next few years."

A variety of economic and political factors led to the development of the Brazilian community in Goose Creek in the first place. Woodward and other researchers have indicated that the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta created a demand for construction workers that led many undocumented workers to flood to the South. Wherever construction jobs appeared, these workers followed, and the booming housing market in Charleston's suburbs in Berkeley and Dorchester Country provided plenty of opportunities.

Initially, very few migrant workers in the state were from South America, but then, between 2000 and 2005, a wave of Brazilian immigrants arrived in the United States. The wave was spurred by developments on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. Border.

click to enlarge Henrique Ferreia has installed vinyl siding in the Goose Creek area for over 10 years - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Henrique Ferreia has installed vinyl siding in the Goose Creek area for over 10 years

In 2000, the Mexican government, in an effort to promote tourism, began to allow Brazilians to enter Mexico without visas. Tourists did come, but so did many migrant workers, who arrived in Mexico legally and then slipped across the border into Texas to seek jobs and a better life in the United States.

Once across, many of these immigrants promptly turned themselves into immigration authorities to take advantage of a legal loophole. Several years ago, all non-Mexican immigrants who were detained near the border crossing were assigned a court date, released, and told to come back. Predictably, most just continued onward to their destinations.

But both of those factors have since changed. In 2005, Mexico begin to require all Brazilians entering the country to have visas, and now, non-Mexican immigrants detained near the U.S. border are put in holding cells until they can be deported. The cumulative effect has been to make the Brazil-Mexico-United States route much more difficult. As a result, illegal Brazilian immigration to the United States has decreased dramatically.

Some still come. I was told that a popular route now is to fly to Guatemala, sneak across Mexico's southern border, and then head north to cross the Rio Grande. Regardless, the trip is both dangerous and expensive, and few people are willing to risk it. According to Maxine L. Margolis, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida and a nationally recognized expert on Brazilian immigration, 31,000 Brazilians were detained along the U.S.-Mexican border in 2005, but the amount has now dwindled to a trickle.

In 2007, the number of Brazilians leaving the U.S. began to increase. Newspaper reports in The New York Times and The Boston Globe have documented the trend in the Northeast. When Brazilians decide to return home after residing abroad, they have to fill out a form at Brazilian customs office, declaring what property they are taking with them. According to information provided by the Brazilian Consulate in Miami, a year ago — before the subprime crisis — the consulate processed about five of these forms a day. Now, they process around 15.

The Brazilian community in Goose Creek began to expand rapidly in the period between 2000 and 2005. The first to come were men who for the most part worked in construction or housing-related trades like painting or carpentry. Women followed, most of whom work in housekeeping. There was legal migration as well, as business owners set up shop to serve the quickly growing Brazilian population. Brasil Minas, a grocery store on Red Bank Highway, opened its doors in 2003. The Amazon Grill restaurant opened the year after and is now joined by two Brazilian convenience stores and two bakeries that both serve fresh, Brazilian-style bread, along with juice and coffee to construction workers early every morning.

Clinging to hope

Two weeks after the show at the Amazon Grill, an entirely different kind of Brazilian party was about to start on a Sunday night in the old post office on Red Bank Road.

"You are our refuge, you are our help, Father, we adore you, we love you this night," says Glaybson DaSilva, the 26-year-old minister of the Assembly of God Church. He speaks quickly and in Portuguese, pushing toward a dramatic crescendo, as he whips the crowd into a Pentecostal spiritual fervor. Here, the men wear dress shirts and dark pants and the women wear their best Sunday dresses, and they all sing just as loud as the crowd had at the Amazon Grill. Mothers rock their babies throughout the service, and teenagers sit together in groups. Behind the pastor, a bassist lays down a groove, and the congregation begins to clap. Alex Filho, a 37-year-old man in a dark blue suit, joins in.

Filho works framing houses, and like most of this congregation, he is afraid that the Brazilian community here will have trouble surviving a long-term recession. If the housing market stays in the gutter, and the recession forces well-off families to decide that they can do without a housekeeper, then many Brazilians will be left without a job. Even a short-term recession could hit the community hard, he reasons, because many immigrants send money back to their home country and as a result don't have money saved to help get them through any rough patches. Filho though, plans to stay.

"I still believe that the construction market can improve ... and as South Carolina is a military state, when the war ends, and the soldiers return, there will be a lot of jobs here," he said.

Oszinei Lima, the lead pastor at the church, says that so far, most of the members of his congregation have decided to remain in Goose Creek. He believes that the fate of the Brazilian community may be connected to the presidential elections, and maintains hope that some immigration reform could be passed to allow immigrants to apply for the legal status they crave. As an evangelical, he understands why many South Carolinians are morally opposed to the presence of illegal immigrants, but he thinks that issue is complex.

click to enlarge Pastor Oszinei Lima says the Brazilians in his congregation plan to stay in the U.S. - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Pastor Oszinei Lima says the Brazilians in his congregation plan to stay in the U.S.

"We believe in a God that forgives, and of course, a man has to try to change his situation, but how is he going to change it?" Lima says. "The only solution is for that person to go back to their country of origin, but many people aren't able to. They came here after a dream, they came believing that they were going to accomplish it, and then, for them to come back with nothing, sometimes a debt? It's difficult for us, as pastors to say, 'You have to return and that's it.' It's complicated for us."

It is not just older workers who are leaving. Natalia Ribeiro is a 17-year-old, soft-spoken student at Goose Creek High School, who over the summer left Brazil and came to the United States to live with her father. She began to learn English in the school's English as a Second Language class. Only a few months ago, she was thinking of trying to stay in the United States. Several of her teachers had been in the Navy, and she thought about signing up so both she and her parents could stay in their new home.

"If I were to enter (the Navy), then they could stay here, and they could have a good life, and so could I," she says.

But Ribeiro has since changed her mind. She sees her father's anxiety over the economy and over the state government's efforts against illegal immigration. Now she plans to go back to Brazil before the end of the year. It has been difficult here, she says, and she is looking forward to going back home.

"I miss my mother, my friends, my family, everybody, and also, this crisis. The dollar is low. It's hard to find a job."

The effects of the exodus are already visible. Two Brazilian stores have recently been up for sale, though both of the owners told The Brazilian Post that their decision was based on "personal reasons" and that it has nothing to do with the economic crisis. Of course, they are looking for buyers, but haven't found any yet.

How will the shrinking Brazilian community affect the rest of the area? Elaine Morgan, CEO of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce, says it is too soon to guess how a Brazilian exodus could affect the local economy. It is typical, she says, for construction workers to migrate to find better jobs, but that many might end up staying because, compared to other areas, the Charleston market is still strong.

Morgan and the chamber had helped organize an event last year with the Brazilian Consulate to help workers deal with their immigration status. She says she thought helping immigrant workers gain visas would benefit everyone.

"That's the key if they want to live and work to make sure they get their visas and things in order," Morgan says.

Most of the immigrants that are here illegally, though, wouldn't be able to get visas unless an immigration reform bill with a path toward legalization passes Congress and is signed into law. In other words, the situation won't change until after the next election, if then.

The community's prospects could improve if the local housing market picks up again. Philip Ford, executive vice-president of the Charleston Trident Home Builders Association, says that while jobs have been cut, he expects the housing market to stabilize next year and perhaps rebound by 2009.

Of course, if the recovery takes much longer than that, many Brazilians will have already left, and the loss of skilled craftsmen — the painters, carpenters, electricians, masons — will force construction companies to adapt. And in the short term at least, there will be an increase in the cost of construction which, in turn, will slow down any prospective rebound.

But the real economic truth is much more basic then that. Nearly all the Brazilians here work and have a skill of some kind. Whatever you think about immigration law and immigration reform — and there are valid arguments on both sides — it is clear that, in their way, the Brazilians of Goose Creek helped build this area's recent prosperity, and now, they are leaving.

Not everyone is ready to pack. João Silva, who owns a small Brazilian sandwich shop, believes that the community will continue to prosper, because, as he sees it, if people continue to leave, there will be more jobs left for the ones who remain. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to stay," he says as he busily sweeps the shop's floor.

As it becomes more difficult for Brazilians to migrate to the United States, and as a possible recession forces many of them to leave, it will take more than optimism for Silva and other business owners on Red Bank Highway to keep their stores open. Regardless, The Amazon Grill has a steady stream of American and Brazilian customers that come for the all-you-can-eat buffet, with Brazilian-style grilled meat, and the Saturday feijoadas, or black beans cooked in pork.

There will be shows there throughout the year, and the crowds are still large enough to attract fairly big name acts. The band I saw, Arriba Saia, has played in festivals attended by over 50,000 people in Brazil. "It doesn't matter the amount of people, I play for the love of the music," says Moceguinho, one of the vocalists, after the show. His hopeful attitude, while admirable, may become more necessary than many of his local fans would prefer. The next time his band plays in Goose Creek, he may find that the crowd has become even smaller.


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