'Counting on Immigration,' Part 4

The "melting pot" is a traditional metaphor for immigration. But a lot has changed since the early Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants, among many, came to Massachusetts.

Now immigration here is dominated by Brazilians, Central Americans, and Haitians. As well, they're not necessarily "melting" into life in their new land. More likely, they're also hanging on to aspects of their old homeland.

In Part Four of our series, "Counting on Immigration," WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports on a new trend, called "transnationalism" and its impact on Massachusetts.

Audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site later today.



MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Jumping from one culture to the next for many local Brazilians is as easy as channel surfing.


BRADY-MYEROV: Here Carlos Franca of Newton, who's lived in the state for 20 years, watches the nightly news from Rio de Janeiro but also flips to Inside Edition.

CARLOS FRANCA: Going to Brazil, I miss America a lot but living right here there's a lot of things I miss in Brazil.

BRADY-MYEROV: Franca is an example of immigrant who is "transnational." He owns a house and business here but he also owns two houses and a business in Brazil. Researcher Alvaro Lima defines transnational as regular, frequent engagement in economic, political and social-cultural activates in both countries.

ALVARO LIMA: If you look at this immigrant community today you have a growing number of people that live transnational lives. They have a business here and in their country. There is a Brazilian in Framingham that has five tax preparation offices here and now he has two in Brazil.

BRADY-MYEROV: Alvaro Lima is the director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and is himself a Brazilian immigrant. He conducted a study about transnationalism for the national nonprofit Innovation Network for Communities. Lima estimates there are 115,000 transnational immigrants in the state across all groups.


ALVARO LIMA: Latin Americans, Africa, Asians: they live their lives here and here.

BRADY-MYEROV: Lima says the trend is seen in low income undocumented immigrants but intensifies when looking at educated well-to do legal immigrants. Many of them come with their own money to create economic opportunities when they move here. Hiep Chu, Executive Director for the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development in Dorchester.

HIEP CHU: The population of immigrants now is totally changed particularly for Southeast Asian countries and they do bring in resources they do bring in economic status in terms of the know how in terms of the interest to do business.

BRADY-MYEROV: Chu says their strong ties to their country of origin, mean they are hedging their bets. To see the impact and implications of this transnational trend for the state, it's interesting to look closely at the Brazilian community, which is the fastest growing immigrant group in the state.

FERNANDA RODRIGUES: Rio that will cost around 3-400,000 Reals (Brazilian currency). That means $200,000.

BRADY-MYEROV: Fernanda Saldanha Rodrigues is a real estate agent in Framingham who sells property in Brazil and Massachusetts.

FERNANDA RODRIGUES: You're not buying a house here for that price!

BRADY-MYEROV: And Rodrigues says it's not only older immigrants looking to buy in Brazil. It's also younger people who were born here but have strong connections abroad. Rodrigues works for Pablo Maia Group Realty and her boss, Pablo Maia, says the business of selling houses and apartments in Brazil is very good.

PABLO MAIA: Very, very busy. It's booming. We sell an average of 30 properties every month.

BRADY-MYEROV: Maia is also an example of this trend of transnationalism.

PABLO MAIA: I'm here for 26 years. I'm 47, so I'm one year older here than there and I've lived more here than there now I lived in both and love both countries.

BRADY-MYEROV: The trend is not new. For instance, in the late 1800s Italian men came here but left their wives and children behind so they stayed connected to the old country. But Lima says what's new is the scope and intensity of transnational activities that's being facilitated by the internet, air travel and cell phones that can be used around the world.

ALVARO LIMA: I think that with globalization the world is more hybrid.

BRADY-MYEROV: Take banking for example. Remittance is a well documented transnational activity. According to the World Bank, immigrants around the world send about $300 billion to their home country each year. Lima estimates that Brazilians in Massachusetts send back close to $2 billion dollars a year. And yet, Lima says, US banks don't cater enough to the remittance market or to immigrants.

ALVARO LIMA: The banks refuse to design their products for this market. You can't design unless you understand it and it's a market that no one is doing research and understanding economically.

BRADY-MYEROV: But some foreign banks see the market and are setting up branches in immigrant communities to capitalize on the opportunity to offer products such as small business loans. Caixa Economica Federal, one of the largest banks in Brazil, opened its first business office in the US in New Jersey recently and is said to be eyeing another location in Framingham.


BRADY-MYEROV: There are five Brazilian TV stations that can be seen around the world connecting immigrants to news from their home community and there are about a hundred ethnic newspapers in the Boston area. 11 cater to Brazilians. Ellen Hume, who directs the Center on Media and Society at UMass Boston, says the surge of ethnic newspapers reflects the trend of transnational.

ELLEN HUME: I'd say in Boston we've just barely scratched the surface to find out who they are and some of them go in and out of business very quickly.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hume says theses papers are not economic engines in their communities but are an indication of where immigrant loyalties lie. They want news from around the corner and from their home country. The UMass center compiles the news from immigrant papers on a website.

ELLEN HUME: Now we will go to our website and see we're a weekly so let's see what we're reading on Oh, we have a wonderful story from the Brazilian journal that a new Brazilian newspaper called 'not your grandfather's East Boston.'


BRADY-MYEROV: These papers allow immigrants to stay connected. They are also filled with advertisements for real estate, banking and education opportunities.

Education is still the gateway to economic success in this country and yet many transnational immigrants struggle to have their degrees recognized. Mahesh Sharma, President of Cambridge College says making degrees more portable is crucial and differs sharply from when immigrants first came to this country.

MAHESH SHARMA: It reminds me of a statement that Oscar Wilde made when he came to the United States for the first time at the New York port. When the immigration person asked him sir anything to declare? He said nothing but my intellect. So the intellect, the brain power is becoming a transferable asset.

BRADY-MYEROV: Sharma says, because education is such a large industry in the state, schools should be catering to immigrant needs to attract them here. Cambridge College is on the vanguard. It's partnered with a large Brazilian university to allow students to get a degree that is valid in both countries.

MAHESH SHARMA: They are getting the associate degree from Brazil and they will get the bachelors' degree from Cambridge college which is an accredited and recognized universally and therefore that degree is recognized anywhere.

BRADY-MYEROV: The transnational trend has caught the attention of the Patrick Administration. Recently the governor elevated the profile of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants by appointing a high level aide to run it. The office will advocate for policies to better integrate immigrants, such as more citizenship programs, increased availability, and access to free English classes, and making another push to allow undocumented immigrates to pay in-state tuition. Researcher Alvaro Lima says the state should do more to capture immigrant's economic contribution.

ALVARO LIMA: As consumers, they spend billions of dollars in the economy. As workers, they produce billions of dollars in the regional economy and as entrepreneurs. But this is not seen there is no policy in the state to say so how to we support immigrants?

BRADY-MYEROV: And when immigrants don't feel supported and have strong ties to home it can be easy to just leave.


BRADY-MYEROV: At Hora Certa, or Right Time, moving company in downtown Framingham, workers tape shut another box that's headed to Brazil. Owner Domingos Barros says he's helped 3,000 Brazilians move back since the spring. And when they leave, they take business with them.

DOMINGOS BARROS: (Translation voiceover) First, Businesses will be hurt. 70% of business in Framingham is Brazilian. These shops will suffer immediately. But also gas stations, convenience stores, everything will be effected.

BRADY-MYEROV: While the 5 moving companies in Framingham are thriving, several other stores in downtown are boarded up because Brazilians went home. It's evidence that this new wave of immigrants, who didn't come to this country to escape political instability or extreme economic hardship, have choices.

They can stay or they can go. This new way of looking at a segment of immigrants as transnational people who easily slip between cultures and countries presents a challenge to the state to rethink how it welcomes and retains immigrants.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

Our series, "Counting on Immigration," was produced by WBUR's Anna Bensted and George Hicks. WBUR's Jesse Costa and Angel Kozeli created and collaborated on our special web site for the series. You can connect to that on the link below.

This program aired on November 15, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live