Shared immigration heritage

The “Shared Heritage” seminars in São Paulo held at SESC Bom Retiro concerned recent immigration and labor force development in Brazil and the U.S.  The Bom Retiro area has traditionally been a place where immigrants landing when they came to Brazil, so holding the event here made sense.

Both our countries have been nations of immigration. Both experience big waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes from the same places and there are cases when Americans and Brazilians can trace their families to the same places at the same times. One group went south and the other north.  The same wave of Italian immigrants, for example, hit Brazil and the U.S. about the same time.

One interesting difference is the Japanese.  São Paulo has the largest Japanese population outside Japan and much of it results from U.S. policy. In 1907, the Japanese Government voluntarily limited Japanese immigration to the U.S. in the “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”  Japanese immigration was redirected toward Brazil.  In general, Brazil received many immigrants who would have gone to the U.S. after the 1924 Immigration Act in the U.S., which limited immigration by establishing quotas based on the composition of the U.S. population in 1890.  This limited immigration for people from southern and eastern Europe, some of whom ended up in Brazil.

The U.S. went through a period of low immigration from the 1920s until the 1965 Immigration Act changed that.  In 1940, only 4.7% of the American population was foreign born.  Today it is nearly 12%.  President Johnson said and experts agreed that 1965 Act would not significantly change the demographic makeup of the U.S.; they were massively mistaken.  This gave us the immigration experience we have today and which we were sharing with Brazil.

Brazil’s experience mirrors ours.  Their immigration was greater when ours was smaller and smaller in recent years when ours was higher, although for different reasons.  Brazil in recent decades was a country of emigration, with more people leaving than coming.   There was a lot of internal migration from the poor Northeast to the richer Southeast, but immigration to Brazil was small. This is changing.  As Brazil has enjoyed sustained economic growth, it is beginning to draw in immigrants again.  This trend will be reinforced by the rapidly dropping fertility rate among the native Brazilian population.  Already there are reports of labor shortages.

The interesting thing about immigration is that it is changing so much that we may not recognize it.  Birth rates are dropping all over the world.  Places like Brazil and Mexico are now below replacement rate.  The time when we had floods of immigrants may be over and we may be looking at shortages of talent and workers.  It will be an interesting turn-around.  We and our Brazilian friends are in very much the same boat.