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For Poor Brazilians, a Perilous, Illegal Journey to U.S.

I've been hearing Portuguese in the streets of New Orleans since almost immediately after Katrina. It's a familiar sound to me, because I lived in Brazil for five years, covering South America for NPR. Now I'm on the National Desk, and I've been helping out in the Katrina coverage, but there they are again -- Brazilian voices.

They're part of the army of immigrant workers who came to clean up the city, just days after the storm: guys with Bahian accents hauling debris, women from Minas Gerais scrubbing the mold from hotel rooms. On my third New Orleans stint, in March, I decided it was time to switch to Portuguese and introduce myself.

The Brazilians of New Orleans live a kind of underground existence, because, of course, they're all in America illegally. The United States does not give visas to Brazilians -- at least, not to poor Brazilians like these. When you apply for a tourist visa in the American consulate in Rio, you have to show your bank records. If there's nothing in those accounts, forget it.

So they come illegally. It's more complicated for them than for Mexicans or Central Americans. Without a visa, they can't board a plane bound for the United States. Instead, the Brazilians buy what they call a "package deal." It includes airfare to Mexico City, where they're picked up by the coyotes, or people-smugglers. The coyotes actually stand there holding a sign, like limo drivers at LAX.

After a night in a hotel, the Brazilians are driven to the border in a van, then escorted across the Rio Grande in the middle of the night. On the American side, more coyotes pick them up, drive them out of the "danger zone" in which American Border Patrol might still stop them, and deliver them to Houston. From there, the immigrants make their own way to one of the bigger Brazilian ghettos in Massachusetts, Florida or, increasingly, New Orleans.

The "package deal" doesn't come cheap. Dalvani Silva, who journeyed post-storm clean up, told me she paid $11,000 -- a relative bargain, she says, because she came last year, when it was still easier for Brazilians to sneak across the Rio Grande. At the time, the Border Patrol had a "catch and release" policy: They allowed non-Mexicans to go free, as long as they promised to show up for an immigration court hearing later on. (See John Burnett's story about this from last summer.) But in recent months, the Border Patrol has clamped down, so coyotes transporting Brazilians have to do more sneaking on the American side. That means the price of the "package" is now up around $14,000.

That's money most of those making the journey don't have. They borrow it from loan sharks in Brazil, and they often hand over the deeds to their homes as collateral. Gerson, part of a crew of men rebuilding a Victorian house in New Orleans, is typical. He's been working seven days a week in New Orleans since September, and so far he's managed to send back a few thousand dollars to pay down the loan-shark debt. But the loan is growing at an interest rate of 5 percent -- that's 5 percent a month. Like many of his fellow Brazilians, it'll take Gerson a couple of years just to repay that debt. In other words, two years working in America, just to break even.

Most plan to go home. They miss their families, and the general idea is to work like a dog for three or four years, send back as much cash as possible, then go back to see how much taller your kids have grown. But some think about staying. Several times they asked me, the all-knowing reporter, when the promised amnesty law would be taking effect. I told them they might not want to count on that... at least, not this year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.