In a monumental shift that is roiling the country's politics, Brazil has switched -- for the first time in decades -- from being a net exporter to a net importer of people. The development, confirmed in recent government statistics, has been driven by a number of factors related to the country's explosive economic growth of recent years: South Americans and Asians flocking to the world's sixth-largest economy, Brazilian expats in countries like the United States returning home for more abundant jobs, and the European economic slowdown that is seeing a wave of Portuguese headed to work in the former colony (more than 50,000 got visas just between January 2010 and June 2011).
But with the shift has come political controversy over who should be allowed to enter the country. The numbers tell the tale: At the beginning of 2012, there were approximately 2 million foreign nationals living legally in Brazil and an estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants. The interest from foreigners is an economic opportunity for Brazil -- which has an estimated shortage of between 200,000 and 400,000 qualified professionals in fields like oil, mining, and technology -- but it is also a political challenge.
Brazil still has tight immigration restrictions put in place by the country's former military government in 1980, and though immigration reform is clearly needed, there's controversy over what form it should take. Portugal is still by far the largest source of immigrants to Brazil, followed by neighboring Bolivia. The Chinese population is growing as well. But Brazil's center-left government is considering reforms meant to bring in 10 times the current number of skilled professionals. Even though the unemployment rate is still below 6 percent, however, there's little public appetite for allowing in more unskilled labor. (One sociologist has compared the policy of focusing on skilled European migrants to Brazil's use of immigrants to "whiten" the country after the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century.)
Brazil is also grappling with a growing illegal-immigration problem. In January, after some 4,000 Haitian immigrants made their way across the Americas to enter the country's remote Amazon region, the government restricted the number of work visas for Haitians to just 100 per month. But Haitian migrants have reportedly continued to flow in this year through the country's sparsely protected border with Bolivia and are receiving humanitarian aid from northern Acre state. Brazil's economic growth may have put it in a position where it now rivals the United States for influence in the Western Hemisphere, but it has also inherited one of the north's thorniest political dilemmas.
EXODUS The global financial crisis has dramatically changed who is moving where. That giant sucking sound Net migration from Mexico to the United States hit zero this year and may soon reverse for the first time in decades. Emerald exit Emigration from Ireland has hit its highest point since the 19th century, with 3,000 Irish nationals leaving the country per month. The real Asian pivot Thanks largely to increased immigration, Asians have overtaken Latinos as the fastest-growing group in the United States. The Russian magnet With an influx of 89,876 immigrants, mostly from Central Asia, demographically declining Russia in early 2012 saw its largest population increase since the early 1990s. Reverse psychology Ten thousand Portuguese left their economically struggling country for former colony Angola in 2011.
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