Growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border, hotel clerk Joe Luis Rubio never thought he’d be trying to communicate in Portuguese on a daily basis.
But with hundreds of Brazilians crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, each week, the Motel 6 by the airport has become a stepping stone for thousands of the Portuguese speakers on a 6,000-mile (9,500 km) journey from Brazil to El Paso to America’s East Coast.
“Thank God for Google Translate or we’d be lost,” says Rubio.
The quiet migration of around 17,000 Brazilians through a single U.S. city in the past year reveals a new frontier in the Trump administration’s effort to shut down the legal immigration pathway for people claiming fear of persecution.
Like hundreds of thousands of families from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, Brazilians have been crossing the border here and applying for asylum. They now make up a quarter of immigrants apprehended in El Paso, the most commonly apprehended migrants after Mexicans.
Nationwide, some 18,000 Brazilians were apprehended in the fiscal year ending in October, a 600% increase from the previous high in 2016. Brazilians crossing in the El Paso Sector, which covers southern New Mexico and west Texas, accounted for 95% of the apprehensions nationwide, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
On Monday, acting CBP chief Mark Morgan vowed to try to shut down asylum for migrants from outside Spanish-speaking Central America and South America.
“We’re seeing, again, individuals from extraterritorial countries, extra-continental, come in from Brazil, Haiti, Africans,” said Morgan.
He pledged to implement rules to bar migrants from those countries “with the same level of commitment that we came up with initiatives to address the issue with the Northern Triangle families.”
Those initiatives included making families wait in often dangerous Mexican border towns for months to apply for asylum, returning them to Mexico to await court hearings and a recent rule that effectively rejects nearly all asylum claims regardless of merit . The result has been a mishmash of pseudo deportations to countries where migrants have never lived and where they face barriers to work or access to basic social services.
Brazilian families are not held indefinitely in detention but instead released to Annunciation House, a network of shelters, where they can stay for a few days while they arrange flights to other cities in the U.S.
They’re often taken to the airport in a minivan driven by Phil Porter.
“It takes a lot for somebody to pack up and leave their country, especially when they’re family oriented,” says Porter, 72, who estimates he’s ferried around 200 Brazilians. “These are economic refugees.”
Brazil plunged into its worst-ever recession in 2015 and 2016 and is headed toward its third consecutive year of roughly 1% growth. The economy’s persistent failure to gain steam means joblessness has remained stubbornly in the double-digits, with the most recent reading at 11.6%. Adding underemployment, the figure more than doubles to almost one quarter of the work force, or 27 million people.
Massachusetts officials and community leaders say they’ve felt the surge in Brazilian migrants this past year, with more families seeking immigration services and enrolling their children in public school. The state has the second largest population of Brazilians in the U.S. after Florida, according to 2015 U.S. Census data.
Recent immigrant Helison Alvarenga says he started working the day after arriving in Massachusetts. The 26-year-old from the state of Minas Gerais arrived in August with his wife and young son after crossing into El Paso. They now live in Brockton, an old factory city 20 miles south of Boston. Already, he says, he’s earning three times more than what he earned as a mechanic in Brazil.
“Things are in pretty bad shape in Brazil right now. The only way to have a better life in Brazil is to go to college, but college is very expensive,” said Alvarenga, speaking in Portuguese through a translator.
The New England winter has also been tougher than he expected, he admits.
“It makes me homesick. I miss the warmth and the sun,” he said. “If I won enough on a scratch ticket, I’d go back tomorrow.”
Many coming from Brazil are petitioning for asylum, citing the country’s high unemployment and persistent corruption and violence, says Luciano Park, an immigration lawyer in Waltham who came from Brazil to attend law school in Boston.
But Brazilian asylum seekers face an uphill climb. Simply seeking to escape Brazil’s chronic, gang-related violence often isn’t enough to claim asylum, Park said.
Women citing domestic violence reasons are also less likely to win their cases under tougher asylum rules imposed by the Trump administration.
“Before these were good cases,” Park said. “But it’s just become tougher to argue.”
Tourist and student visas have been more difficult for Brazilians to get as more clamored for them in the recent economic downturn, says Francis Brink, an immigration lawyer in Orlando, Florida.
He has taken a few clients who were persecuted by the government because they were police officers or military officials resisting corruption. But he turns most asylum seekers away, not wanting to give them false hope.
Many single adult Brazilian migrants are being held in immigration detention while their asylum claims are processed. Others have tried to dodge detention by pretending to be a parent or a minor, often using IDs fraudulently obtained in Brazil. Homeland Security Investigations agents have been filing allegations of so-called “family fraud” by Brazilians at least a few times per month.
On a recent Tuesday, the Motel 6 is half empty, with only two Brazilian families staying there.
In room 127, a 42-year-old mother from the northeastern state of Maranhão is in bed watching TV. She’s waiting with her 16-year old son for a flight to Philadelphia, where they have family.
She said they spent four days in a Border Patrol tent detention camp before being released.
“It was miserable,” she said.
While stays at the Motel 6 are down, more migrants are staying for longer at Annunciation House, according to the shelter’s director, Ruben Garcia.
“One of the things that may have changed is we have Brazilians that don’t have some of the financial resources that some of the Brazilians did a while back,” Garcia said.