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Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians and Chileans compose a virtual army of cheap and abundant workforce in the capital of São Paulo.  The draft of the New Foreigner Law that is passing through the National Congress is extremely selective from the economic point of view and doesn’t resolve the situation of the undocumented immigrant workers.

“No one is illegal no matter where they live”

Luiz Bassegio e Roberval Freire*  

It is estimated that there are today, in the capital of São Paulo, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans, 40% of whom are in irregular situations.  The total population of the city of São Paulo in 2004, according to the IBGE, was 10.8 million people.

Slave labor is a reality among many of these immigrants.  Despite not being a theme of the novela, the situation of the undocumented Latin American immigrants in the city of São Paulo is an extremely painful reality.  Many times they end up as slaves in textile factories in the central region of the capital, like Brás, Bom Retiro and Pari.  In São Paulo, the largest city in the country, Latin American immigrants in illegal situations are victims of slave labor:  Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians and Chileans make up a virtual army of cheap and abundant workforce² in the capital of São Paulo.  The origin of this situation is related to the reality of the countries from which many flee in search of better living and working conditions.

The reports are numerous of people recruited in Bolivia, with deceptive radio and newspaper advertisements that promise employment, housing, and pay.  Arriving here, the reality is quite different.  The first six months of work are to pay off the travel costs to the middleman that brought them (gato or coyote).  Many times the passports are confiscated and there is threat of being turned over to the police if the immigrant does not comply with the demands of the middleman.  After three months pass, the tourist visa of the immigrant expires and he or she becomes an “undocumented”.   

           “Among these ‘undocumenteds’, there is a fear of making accusations, fear of the police and punishment.  After the completion of the months for the payment of travel costs, many flee and face legislation that criminalizes them but does not recognize the traffic in people.” (Jornal Presença Latina, 2004)

            However this exploitation is not a residual fact of the system, but an intrinsic part of it. The piece of clothing produced in the sordid trenches of slavery is the same trendy clothing displayed in the windows of the city’s shopping centers.  The migrant worker, considered clandestine, certainly is a part of the productive chain of the great brands.  Similar facts occur throughout the world, where the struggle for competitiveness imposes cuts in cost and, consequently, in workforce.

In one of the cases, in an area adjacent to the factory, eight of the workers and a six-year-old child partitioned six small, improvised rooms of 2 square meters, divided by plywood walls.  The others, when the shift is extended, end up sleeping right there as well.  Also, a kitchen operates there, where the meals offered by the bosses are made.

         It is worth remembering how the immigrant workers who are undocumented live: what their living and working conditions are, how they are recruited, deceived and submitted to the exhausting work regimen.  Among the principal irregularities, the following stand out:

         The form in which they are recruited in Bolivia, with deceptive promises of wages of up to US$500 monthly, when in reality they do not pass US$100;

          -The confinement to which they are subjected in São Paulo: working several months to pay for their travel and the impossibility of communication;

          -Confiscation of documents and blackmail with threats of denouncing to the police;

          -The long and exhausting work shifts to which they are subjected, and which many times reach more than 16 hours a day;

-The continuous rotation of work places, thus avoiding any type of organization and eluding the local authorities;

-The noxious working conditions:  living and working in the same locale, breathing in the dust from the work area;

-Restriction of liberty due to the work schedule and the constant repression;

-But the gravest of all is the impossibility of demanding rights, whether because of the language difficulty or the fact of being undocumented and subjected to a foreigner law that is authoritarian, xenophobic, restrictive and still a machine that produces ‘undocumenteds’”. (SPM, 2004)

Backed into a corner, they do not usually denounce the bosses.  Many never so much as imagine that they are being exploited.  It is not uncommon to hear them saying that they prefer working in Brazil to working in Bolivia.  Entire families, in a situation of illegality, accept working and living in textile factories.  They prefer working up to 17 hours per day over being unemployed in their country.

The recent Brazil-Bolivia agreement of August 2005 for the regularization of documentation will reach a fraction of the immigrants because many are of other nationalities and wait for a new foreigner law.  Moreover, it privileges those that have technical conditions, liberal professionals, and administrators of multinational companies.

The draft of the New Foreigner Law that is passing through the National Congress is extremely selective from the economic point of view and fails to solve the situation of the undocumented immigrant workers.  For this, it suffices to list the diverse privileged categories that are mentioned in Article 11: “study (elementary, high school, undergraduate and graduate) (I); artist and athlete (II); administrator, manager, director, commercial or civil society executive, economic group or agglomerate (III); newspaper, magazine, radio, television or foreign news agency correspondent (IV); religious minister (V); volunteer, director of non-governmental organization or of research (VI); marine or technician aboard cargo, tourist or fishing ship (VII) ( (Vai-vem 100 – 2005).


The main problems related to the immigrants refer to Brazilian legislation.  The Foreigner Law, dated 1980, complicated the documentation process, denying the immigrants the right to minimal citizenship that is guaranteed in the 1988 Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The second article of the Foreigner’s Statute, Estatuto do Estrangeiro, of 1980 (Law 6.815) established as priorities national security, the political, socio-economic and cultural interests of Brazil, as well as the defense of the Brazilian workers.  These principles, in contrast to those of the Magna Carta, should be something of the authoritarian past of the country.  However, what one witnesses is the opposite.  Law 6.815 continues to govern the residency of foreigners in Brazil in a flagrant contradiction to the defense of the rights of the human person, those guaranteed in several International Conferences and also by the Brazilian government’s National Plan for Human Rights.

Those that do not fit into the demands of the law are, consequently, named “ilegais” or “clandestinos”, interfering in the exercise of their citizenship, denying them basic rights such as renting property, being registered at a job, and access to credit. They have difficulty enrolling their children in school, turning to the justice system in the case of violation of their rights, and receiving free medical assistance.  The forced ‘clandestinization’ of the immigrant families in these 25 years of the Foreigner’s Statute in Brazil irremediably injured the rights of children and adolescents, impeding them from studying in public schools.  The Child and Adolescent Statute of 1990 itself, has been violated because it established the non-discrimination between Brazilian and foreign children or adolescents, documented or not. 

The inefficiency of the document expedition process for foreigners aggravates the situation of the undocumented because of the bureaucracy supported in the old law.  This contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which in Article 13 says: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”

Another problem that concerns all is the rising unemployment, specifically among the more qualified workers, above all those from the industrial sector.

In São Paulo, companies in the textile assembly sector carry out the work of travel agencies for these immigrants to leave their countries of origin, using their own countrymen as agents.  Part of them work and live in the cellars of the textile factories, in situations of semi-slavery: shifts of up to 16 hours a day, under the fear of denouncement, which threatens them with deportation by the Federal Police. 

Lawyers and dispatchers, promising to handle the documentation, deceive these immigrants, extorting from them the meager earnings they have managed.

Juan Plaza, coordinator of the Casa do Migrante, in São Paulo, is one of the immigrants that chose Brazil as his new homeland.  When he arrived in the country, in 1984, the Chilean lived first hand the consequences of all the obstacles of the Foreigner’s Statute, and since then he has actively participated in the work promoted by the Brazilian entities which fight for the immigrants’ cause.  In his opinion, it is necessary to quickly regularize the situation of the immigrants who find themselves in the country, in order for them not to be considered illegal and handled as a case for the police.   The idea is also to look at the immigrant question through the social, economic and political perspective. 

“When people arrive in a new country, they seek alternatives to realize their dreams.  But the current legislation is obstructive.”  He believes that the fundamental point to be studied is the question of documents, so that the immigrants can have access to health, education and credit like any other Brazilian citizen.  “It is necessary that we establish different rules so the immigrant does not enter the informal sector, end up in the black market or drug trafficking because of not having conditions to survive”, believes Juan.

The Draft of the New Foreigner Law, of the Ministério da Justiça, of September 2005, had the merit of the opening for consulting society, however it is still timid on several points and brings remnants of the current and former law.  It is possible that the bigger struggle is stuck in the National Congress, considered conservative and averse to change.  From “National Security” the new text communicates a new concept of “workforce selectivity”, as initial criteria for the admission of the immigrant.  In other words, the market would be the principle for the Foreigner Law, and the Ministério do Trabalho, a selection agent.

The Integration that we want

Currently migration is a worldwide reality.  The migratory phenomenon presents itself as contradictory and complex.  Unwanted and “necessary”, the migrants are part of the logic of forced mobility, imposed by capital, which excludes, discards, attracts, precariously includes, exploits, ‘massify’ and represses.

Latin Americans themselves cannot circulate freely on their continent.  The restrictions, since the military dictatorships, depend on judicial and bureaucratic apparatus that penalize the migrants and their families.  In addition to not being able to circulate, unlike financial capital they cannot exercise the minimum rights of citizenship or even human rights.

For George Martine, one of the conference participants of the Social Migration Forum  that took place in Porto Alegre in January 2005, the negative aspects of migration are related to the “brain drain[1]”; the difficulties in communication, persecutions, mistreatment and exploitation.  In the host countries conflicts and tensions occur and only immigrants are seen as fiscal burden and considered competitors for local workers”.  (SPM, 2005)

For these and other reasons, we want an integration:

-    that contemplates the socio-economic, political, and cultural aspects; that is an integration of solidarity.  In this sense, Mercosul cannot be just an economic and commercial treaty.

-    that has a new Foreigner Law: the current one is outdated, xenophobic and has remnants of the military dictatorship.  A new law, a general amnesty, the right to residency, right to come and go in the region (not only for financial capital) and to have these rights recognized in every country in the region.

- that considers the socio-economic, political and cultural aspects; that is an integration of solidarity.  In this sense, Mercosul cannot be only a commercial and economic agreement. 

-  that has a new Foreigners Law:  the current on is out-of-date, xenophobic and has vestiges of the military dictatorship.  A new law, general amnesty, the right to residency, the right to come and go in the region ( not just for financial capital) and to have these rights recognized in all the countries of the region are all necessary. 

- that aims at a Universal Citizenship; The growing interdependence caused by the current dynamic of globalization starts to show the convenience and necessity of defining what has already been named “universal citizenship”.  Emerging more and more is the need for recognizing in every human being an explicit right of “universal citizenship”, by the simple and fundamental fact of being a member of the human family, therefore a participant in the “human society”, with the right to occupy his or her vital space and to contribute with his or her presence and action.  “For the migrant, home is the land that gives you bread.”

At the Social Migration Forum, with the participation of 600 people from 37 countries, the idea of universal citizenship emerged powerfully.  In the words of Dom Demétrio Valentini, President of the Serviço Pastoral dos Migrantes “the need emerges more and more to grant to every human being an explicit right  of “universal citizenship”, for the simple and fundamental fact of being a member of the human family”.

On the other hand, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (DUDH preamble), it suffices, in this moment, to question whether or not the draft of the New Foreigner Law is in accordance with this perspective. (Vai-Vem 100/2005)

The SPM - Serviço Pastoral dos Migrantes and the Centro Pastoral dos Migrantes approach the immigrants, aware that their integration in Brazilian society cannot mean an obligation of assimilation of the local culture, to the detriment of their own.  Together, they fight for the conquest of their right to exist legally and for access to dignified living conditions, putting into practice the much-desired Latin American solidarity.


(*) Luiz Bassegio e Roberval Freire are from the  Secretaria do Serviço Pastoral dos Migrantes

[1] This expression, ‘fuga dos cérebros’ refers to the exodus of the most educated people of a country.