Brazilian Immigrants Face Anger in Boston

Thousands of Brazilian immigrants have settled in and around Boston. But as they grow in numbers and in economic success, some other residents don't want them there.

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For two decades, Brazilians have been settling in and around Boston. As Portuguese speakers, they found a familiar culture forged by Portuguese fishermen who migrated there centuries ago. In recent years, though, as the number of arriving Brazilians has spiked, there's been a backlash. Many of the region's Brazilians are undocumented and, as is happening in towns across the country, a small but vocal group is speaking out against this illegal immigration. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

(Soundbite of "Illegal Immigration Chat")

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

For about a year, there's been a new show on Framingham's local access cable TV.

(Soundbite of "Illegal Immigration Chat")

Mr. JIM RIZOLI (Host): Hi, I'm Jim Rizoli, and this is "Illegal Immigration Chat."

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Jim and his twin brother Joe Rizoli produce the show themselves. It's a type of broadcast blog. On this night, they show video they took of downtown Framingham swamped for hours with hundreds of happy Brazilians. They're celebrating a big win by Brazil's national soccer team.

(Soundbite of "Illegal Immigration Chat")

Mr. JIM RIZOLI: The police officer told Joe that there's no permit for this; it just happened. So basically, we don't have any control of the town.

LUDDEN: Jim and Joe Rizoli have founded a local chapter of Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement; they call it CCFIILE. When they meet me at a strip mall coffee shop, Joe wears an army green cap that says `US Border Patrol.'

Mr. JOE RIZOLI (Producer, "Illegal Immigration Chat"): This hat is my little signature when I go out because it gets interesting looks behind counters.

LUDDEN: And the staff behind fast-food counters is a sore point with Rizoli.

Mr. JOE RIZOLI: It's little things that really bother you. Like, you go to the Dunkin' Donuts and you go ask for a coffee and they don't know what the hell you're talking about. I mean, everybody tells me about that, and it is frustrating. I mean, I can understand, you know, maybe one Brazilian working there. But like four? I mean, I'm serious. Four?

LUDDEN: The Rizolis believe every job for an immigrant means one less job for an American citizen, and that the supply of foreign workers is driving down wages. They filed complaints against the local fast-food franchise and with a national grocery store chain, accusing them of breaking the law by hiring illegal workers. Joe wants the town to step in.

Mr. JOE RIZOLI: And they have to start--when people come to them for businesses, you know, like, opening up a new business anywhere in town, they go to ask them, `Are you legal yourself? Are you going to hire legal people?' In other words, Framingham now has to take a stand saying, `We are not going to accept illegal immigration.' It's unacceptable behavior.

LUDDEN: That's not likely to happen. And to see why, all you need to do is walk downtown.

Ms. VERA DIAS FRATUS(ph): I started this with two countertops inside of my home.

LUDDEN: Vera Dias Fratus leans against one of those countertops in her jewelry store. She came to Massachusetts, illegally, 14 years ago. Her husband started a cleaning business, and a year later, Fratus moved her jewelry store to this site.

Ms. FRATUS: Downtown was a bad place. All the stores was closed. But fall when it's wintertime, it's dark and I used to look outside and see all the stores closing when it was dark. It was tough. It was tough.

LUDDEN: Now Fratus is not only a successful businesswoman, she's just become an American citizen.

It's stories like that that impress Katie Murphy. She is the chair of Framingham's Board of Selectmen.

(Soundbite of traffic noise)

Ms. KATIE MURPHY (Chair, Framingham Board of Selectmen): We are in Memorial Square right in the middle of this town, an old New England town which is--it's 305 years old.

LUDDEN: Murphy says a decade ago, this red-brick square was shuttered and barren. A General Motors plant had closed; shops and restaurants had left for outlying malls. Then the Brazilians came. It's hard to say exactly how many there are today--estimates vary from five to 15,000--certainly enough to have a big impact on a town with a total population of 67,000. As she strolls, Murphy points out a Brazilian hair salon, a couple of travel agencies, restaurants and a supermarket, all with signs in Portuguese. Murphy admits she can't read a word, but that's fine by her.

Ms. MURPHY: People go to the North End in Boston, you know, and it's not considered, you know, a bad thing; it's considered something to celebrate.

LUDDEN: The Italian community there.

Ms. MURPHY: Exactly. And that's the way that I look at our Brazilian community. You're coming here, you're bringing your food, you're bringing your culture, you're bringing your sports. Let's go for it. Let's enjoy it. Let's celebrate it.

LUDDEN: And if a lot of these Brazilians are illegal, Murphy says, `It's someone else's job to look at that; it's my job to develop a strong, vibrant community.'

That attitude guided Murphy when she took over as chair of Framingham's town meetings this year. The Rizoli brothers and their supporters had long packed the meetings, pushing for some type of crackdown. After fielding complaints and consulting town guidelines, Murphy decided they'd had their say. This is what happened at the next meeting Murphy chaired.

(Soundbite of Framingham town meeting)

Ms. MURPHY: Ms. Mulvey(ph).

Mr. JIM RIZOLI: Point of order. I was next on the list.

Ms. MURPHY: Sir, it doesn't...

Mr. JIM RIZOLI: I was next on the list.

Ms. MURPHY: I don't have to call anybody in any order. So...

Mr. JIM RIZOLI: It seems like you're bypassing me.

Ms. MURPHY: I am bypassing you, Mr. Rizoli.

Mr. JIM RIZOLI: And why's that? I'm in a town meeting...

LUDDEN: After a few minutes, the clerk shuts off Jim's mike. He crosses his arms and keeps talking.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Ms. MURPHY: Sit down, Mr. Rizoli. I'm having you removed. Sit down!

LUDDEN: This drags on several more minutes before Rizoli walks out quietly.

As Jim and Joe Rizoli see it, they're up against a whole community that benefits from illegal immigration. Government officials, business owners, immigration lawyers all, they say, make money from the Brazilians' presence. Brazilian activists see it differently.

Ms. ILMA PAIXAO (Brazilian American Association): The whole issue is with intimidation. This is a brochure that we just received.

LUDDEN: Ilma Paixao heads Framingham's Brazilian American Association, or BRAMAS. A flier from Rizoli's group accuses BRAMAS of breaking federal law by aiding and abetting illegal aliens. Joe Rizoli says he'd love to put BRAMAS out of business. In fact, both sides in this conflict say they've consulted lawyers trying to find something that'll stick against their opponents. Ilma Paixao says as long as Brazilians were only cleaning houses or working in construction, no one seemed to mind.

Ms. PAIXAO: And I think what bothers Rizoli is really our success. I don't think it's our failures that bothered him; I think it's our success is what really bothers him. And that's too bad because we will succeed.

LUDDEN: Anti-immigration sentiment these days is making it harder for Framingham's Brazilians, Paixao says, but as she's learned in two decades in this country, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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