COVID-19 sparks push for immigration reform in Brazil

‘We're not asking for new rights, we're reclaiming the ones we already have.’

Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail
Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil, on 11 April 2019. Migrants are disproportionately exposed to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. (Pilar Olivares/REUTERS)

Brazilian lawmakers are being urged to pass an emergency regularisation bill for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers whose precarious position has been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The outbreak here is one of the worst in the world, with the second most confirmed cases – approaching two million – and more than 72,000 people dead, as of 13 July. 

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are disproportionately exposed to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, and UN agencies have urged governments to “leave no one behind” in their responses by exploring options for regularisation.

Brazil already has a progressive immigration law that guarantees basic rights – including healthcare access and welfare benefits – regardless of status. But the pandemic has laid bare shortcomings in its implementation as undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers whose applications have been put on hold struggle to access relief funds and medical assistance. 

Now, civil society groups have launched a movement called Regularização Já (Regularisation Now), joining a growing number of campaigns around the world pushing for immigration amnesties during the pandemic. 

Countries such as Portugal and Italy have already adopted policies granting access to healthcare and temporary residency status to some migrants and asylum seekers during the crisis. But these initiatives fail to address what happens after state of emergency declarations are lifted and time-bound programmes expire.

Civil society groups in Brazil are taking their call a step further. So far, 16 organisations, mostly headed by women, are pushing for a sweeping bill that would grant residency to all immigrants in the country, regardless of their current status. Under the proposed legislation, potentially hundreds of thousands of people who are undocumented or have a pending immigration case would be eligible for residency status for up to two years, with the possibility of renewal for an indefinite period of time. 

The bill also takes into account economic hardship caused by the coronavirus crisis by providing fee exemptions and dropping a requirement that means immigrants must present evidence of being able to earn a living to gain permanent residence. 

Proponents of the campaign say broad regularisation is needed to eliminate the bureaucracy, misconceptions about documentation requirements, and xenophobia that often prevent people from accessing the services and benefits they are entitled to under Brazil’s existing immigration law – and which during a pandemic can be a much needed lifeline.

“We're not asking for new rights. We're reclaiming the ones we already have under the law and that weren't handed to us on a plate – we fought for them,” Oriana Jara, an immigrant from Chile and president of the nonprofit Presença da América Latina, one of the organisations behind the regularisation campaign, told The New Humanitarian. 

A crisis within a crisis

In March, when São Paulo emerged as the epicentre of Brazil’s pandemic, Jobana Moya, one of the organisers of Regularização Já and the co-founder of a women-led collective, started receiving an increasing number of requests for food assistance from immigrant women. 

The women asking for help were from Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Bolivia, Argentina, and elsewhere and had varying residency statuses. Many were family breadwinners and had lost their jobs or seen income from their informal businesses dwindle due to social distancing measures. With money running short, some were facing potential eviction.

Moya mobilised a group of volunteers to collect donations and distribute staple goods, but – within the larger public health crisis – signs of a particularly acute crisis unfolding for low-income immigrants and the undocumented only grew. 

“When you have irregular status, it puts you in a non-place. You can't complain, and you can't fight for your rights.”

Immigrant women were concerned about being able to access medical care, should they fall sick, and were having trouble collecting the monthly instalments of 600 Brazilian real (around $110) provided by the federal government to support informal workers and unemployed people. Banks were unlawfully requesting proof of residency or rejecting valid foreign-issued identification documents, and people without legal status didn’t have accounts where the money could be deposited. 

Moya, who moved to Brazil from Bolivia in 2007 and has since become a permanent resident, realised that stopgap measures, like writing letters to banks or taking legal action, wouldn't be enough to protect those hit hardest by the pandemic. 

“When you have irregular status, it puts you in a non-place. You can't complain, and you can't fight for your rights,” Moya said. “We need structural changes so that people can stop living in fear.”

Fragile immigration policies

It's unclear exactly how many undocumented people are living in Brazil, but experts estimate that a massive regularisation programme would potentially benefit hundreds of thousands. That includes people whose immigration cases were put on hold in mid-March and at least 200,000 asylum seekers with pending applications, many of whom ultimately won't qualify for refugee status and will likely remain in a legal limbo. 

With a population of around 210 million and the largest economy in Latin America, Brazil has a track record of taking a progressive approach to immigration policy. Various governments have issued humanitarian visas and stay authorisations – to Haitians following natural disasters, and to Syrians escaping the country’s civil war. 

The head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, recently praised Brazil’s response to the exodus of Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse in their country as “exemplary”. But guidelines for granting citizens of most countries full refugee status remain restrictive. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have also immigrated to Brazil in the past decade, mainly from other South American countries, the Caribbean, and Africa in search of economic opportunity or because of family ties, and the federal government offered amnesty to thousands of people as recently as 2009. 

“We need to create permanent ways to reconstruct our history of treatment of migrants.”

But asylum seekers and migrants often struggle to overcome language barriers, and the processing of requests for protection and immigration applications can take years, leaving people in a documentation no man’s-land with little choice but to work in low-paying – often exploitative – jobs in sectors hit hard by the pandemic. 

The struggles faced by undocumented people or those thrust into immigration limbo during the crisis have “exposed how fragile our immigration policies are”, according to Paulo Illes, a representative of migrant and refugee advocacy group Rede Sem Fronteiras. 

“We need to create permanent ways to reconstruct our history of treatment of migrants,” Illes said, adding that the regularisation proposal was an “extremely important” first step.

An unfulfilled obligation 

Shaped by input from experts and civil society, Brazil’s existing immigration law – which came into effect in 2017 – guarantees foreigners and citizens equal treatment and makes regularisation an “obligation”, according to Camila Asano, programme director at the human rights organisation Conectas. 

“The current legislation positions Brazil in the vanguard by acknowledging that regularisation is the best way to deal with the issue of migrants,” Asano said. “States are better off when they know who are these populations, how many, and where they are.”

The pandemic has made that particularly apparent, but the problem is that Brazil’s law isn’t being fully implemented.

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In 2017, then-president Michel Temer vetoed important provisions of the law before signing it, including a measure granting amnesty to immigrants who enter Brazil without proper documentation. He argued that offering “indiscriminate amnesty” would diminish the government's authority over the reception of foreigners. 

Temer’s qualified approach has been replaced by hostility under the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who came into office at the beginning of 2019 and once referred to refugees as “the scum of the world”. 

Bolsonaro withdrew Brazil from the UN’s global migration compact, a non-binding December 2018 agreement that lays out international standards for managing migration. Following in US President Donald Trump's footsteps, he claimed that Brazil should exercise its sovereignty when establishing immigration policies. “Not just anyone is allowed to enter into our house,” Bolsonaro tweeted at the time. 

Despite an overall disregard for the advice of public health officials regarding coronavirus, Bolsonaro closed Brazil’s border in March, effectively banning the entry of most migrants, including asylum seekers, who he threatened with deportation and the denial of protection. 

The messaging from Bolsonaro has been accompanied by a rise in xenophobia during the pandemic. In one incident in May, a man from Angola was killed and two other immigrants were injured in a knife attack prompted by a discussion about immigrants receiving emergency federal aid money. 

‘We're always lacking something’

Drumming up support for regularisation against this backdrop may be difficult. But for women like Gabriela, an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia who asked to be identified only by her first name, it could make the difference between destitution and being able to keep her head above water. 

Gabriela came to Brazil last August with her husband and three young daughters in search of economic opportunity. Along with her husband, she found informal work in São Paulo sewing clothes. When the pandemic began, their income plummeted. “Some days we would only make cents,” Gabriela told TNH. “And the little we were able to save before the pandemic is now gone.”

Gabriela and her husband now sew clothes 16 hours a day, five days a week in exchange for accommodation in a flat shared between eight people and a salary that is less than half of the legal minimum wage. The family is surviving on food donations stretched to last for two weeks at a time. 

“I don't know how long we can keep going like this, only working to eat and nothing else.”

“We're always lacking something, between the baby drinking a lot of milk and the children not going to school and staying home,” Gabriela said. “I don't know how long we can keep going like this, only working to eat and nothing else.”

Gabriela worries who will care for her daughters if she or her husband gets sick and what will happen to them as people without legal status if they have to go to the hospital. “That's always a concern,” she said. 

Gabriela and her family are eligible for residency, but because federal agencies have stopped processing most immigration requests, they are in limbo. The regularisation bill would fix that, and pave the way for them to access social benefits and healthcare.

‘Migration is a human right, not a crime’

Migrant-led community groups are helping by raising support funds and trying to find people economic opportunities and other services. These efforts can plug gaps in the state response, but activists involved in the Regularização Já campaign say they should supplement the support that would come from people having regularised status, not take its place. 

So far, an online petition for the campaign has gained almost 3,000 supporters, and organisers have partnered with groups in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru to create a regional movement for regularisation.

Ultimately, whether the effort will succeed in Brazil boils down to political will. Organisers are reaching out to legislators to sponsor the regularisation bill, but so far only have about half of the support they need to force an expedited vote. Unless the bill moves forward – and quickly – they worry that an ever increasing number of people like Gabriela will continue to live in fear while suffering the worst of the pandemic.

“Migration is a human right, not a crime,” said Moya, the Regularização Já organiser. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to the invisibility of our identities and the violences against our bodies.”

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