A Brazilian Immigrant Journalist Looks Back at 2008

By Eduardo A. de Oliveira, EthnicNewz and FI2W reporter

For millions of immigrant workers 2008 began with a sour taste in all the mouths they have to feed. Six months into 2007, Congress had drowned their highest hopes by killing the Immigration Reform bill.

For many families there was no choice but to return home – in the Brazilian community of Massachusetts alone there were 10,000 retornados, according to the Brazilian Immigrant Center.

Among those who remained here, much of the rhetoric about the need for immigrants to learn English got stuck in the back of their heads. The consequences were best seen in Framingham, Mass.

During a lottery for seats in an English-as-a-second-language course at Fuller Middle School, 500-plus immigrants competed for 165 seats. Of course the ‘no cost’ policy wooed many. But more than ever, they saw English as the language of their future – whether or not they are documented.


Hairdresser Marta dos Santos smiles upon hearing the news that she is one of 165 immigrants picked for an ESL course at Fuller Middle School. More than 500 people tried to get a seat in the classes. Photo: EDUARDO A. de OLIVEIRA

Despite being an election year, 2008 also served to harden immigrants’ hearts.

In the Republican presidential primary, candidates debated who would be the toughest on deporting undocumented workers. Forget about the melting pot, at that point workers learned that to half of America, all that mattered was their immigration status.

In the end, the Republicans selected a presidential candidate who had a record of trying to help undocumented immigrants. But the workers’ future in the U.S. looked grimmer as gas prices hit $4 per gallon, straining the livelihoods of delivery men, truckers, and taxi drivers.

But David Grabowski, a Health Economist at Harvard Medical School, found something about higher gas prices that was not bad news at all.

“We’ve discovered that for every 10 percent in price increase, there are 2.3 percent fewer fatalities in traffic related accidents. Among teenage drivers, at least 6 percent more lives were spared,” said Grabowski, who compared data from Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), from 1985 to 2006.

In another health-related story, a Dominican doctor used her Boston University credentials to fill a gap left behind by the Massachusetts Health Care Reform law.

Off the bat, Dr. Milagros Abreu’s (her first name means miracles) goal was to enroll 40 low-income families – most of them undocumented – for health insurance. Six months later the Latino Health Insurance Program had signed up more than 1,000 families.

Anthropologist Gláucia Assis interviewed 47 workers who returned to Brazil. Many claimed they did not know they had the right to access health care in the U.S.

“Migrants spend most of their productive years, ages 20 to 40, on foreign soil. Many come back to their homelands in worse shape than when they migrated,” she said.

As immigrants struggled with the new economic reality, a chilling piece of news came from Cape Cod, a tourist oasis accustomed to welcoming foreigners.

“On the morning of July 27 Andre Luiz de Castro Martins, a Brazilian national, was shot and killed by Yarmouth police officer Christopher Van Ness after a brief car chase,” reported The Cape Cod Times.

The shooting left many Brazilians with a sense of helplessness. They could not bring themselves to believe that police officers, who were paid to protect everyone equally, could now be perceived as their enemy.

Later, a report released by the office of Cape Cod District Attorney Michael O’Keeffe, concluded that “officer Van Ness discharged his weapon after issuing commands to the operator, after observing the operator accelerate toward him as he occupied a four to five (4-5) foot space between his cruiser and the path of the vehicle.”

Despite the challenges, through good and bad times, most immigrants stick with this country. How many of them left after the nation was attacked on 9/11? How many abandoned the U.S. after its engagement in open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Many have defended this country on the battlefield. Some have given their lives.

The election of Barack Obama renewed the hopes of millions of immigrant families. Even though he barely mentioned immigration during the fall campaign, Obama represents a change they can believe in: that the one man who understood their plight will honor his campaign commitment by responding to a simple question.

Can we stay in this country? Yes you can!