REPORTING FROM RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil has announced plans to grant amnesty to thousands of Haitian immigrants but deport any who cross the border from Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia without visas in the future.
Brazil will issue 100 visas a month in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, both to ease the burden on border towns that have been overwhelmed by refugees seeking visas and to try to reduce dangerous smuggling operations, authorities said.
Since a 2010 earthquake in their nation, 4,000 Haitians have arrived in Brazil, rapidly expanding the already growing ranks of immigrants. They come seeking a better life and relying on relatively tolerant policies toward undocumented migrants.
The Brazilian economy has been growing rapidly and unemployment is at historic lows, but the arrival of immigrants quickly pushed against the limits of a bureaucracy that has been more used to seeing its own citizens go abroad in search of work.
Brazil has long prided itself on respecting the rights of immigrants, and most that get here can count on being given a work visa sooner or later. But those waiting for that process to unfold in cities like Brasileia, near the borders with Peru and Bolivia, were making it hard for locals to care for them.
“The city is small, we don't have sufficient infrastructure, and we already have local problems,” Mayor Leila Galvao told the local newspaper O Globo. “We couldn't take care of them the way we would have liked to.”
About 1,600 Haitians had already received humanitarian visas, which allow them to work in Brazil. Once word spread that Brazilians were friendly, and likely to be able to offer job opportunities, the flow across the borders accelerated. In the last three days of 2011, 500 Haitians arrived in Brasileia.
Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the government would take action to tighten the border areas where smugglers were operating. But Brazil shares more than 10,000 miles of border with 10 countries, and the more effective deterrent is likely to be the threat of deportation — a threat that left some commentators divided.
The amnesty “is a way of recognizing the economic need of these people. Obviously Brazil has a policy based on human rights, and we recognize the problem in Haiti,” Cardozo said. “But we can't agree that it is a situation that is completely out of control.”
Recently the Justice Ministry published figures that indicated that for the first time in 20 years, there are more foreigners living in Brazil than Brazilians living abroad. But still, there are only an estimated 2 million legal and illegal immigrants in Brazil, a nation of about 195 million people.
Not all of the arrivals are from poorer countries. Professionals from Europe and the U.S. have also been setting up shop here — and often earning more.
The local governments in western Brazil, thousands of miles away from the country's much richer population centers, were overwhelmed by the Haitians. There were no reports of any conflicts with the local population. However, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on social assistance, one state government began buying bus tickets to take immigrants to another state.
Haitians have had to go through a difficult process to apply for visas to Brazil. And the typical journey might take them through Panama and at least one other country to get to the world's sixth-largest economy and a country that prides itself on openness.
“Here [in Sao Paulo], I don't have to think about whether I have something to eat,” Haitian visa holder Robens Valere told the O Globo newspaper. “Here, I'm not afraid.”