Brazil and its immigrants, 1880-1925 :  the definition of the ideal immigrant

Jair da Souza Ramos,
doctoral candidate,
University of Saõ Paolo

22 April 1999

As of 1886, Brazil became a country of mass immigration. The new arrivals were supposed to provide needed labour for the plantations, destabilised by the end of slavery, allow the ‘racial regeneration’ of the Brazilian population and guarantee the country’s development. Very quickly, however (the law on the poor, 1850), Brazilian authorities concluded that not all the immigrants could permit the attainment of these objectives and thus defined an ideal immigrant :  “white, of peasant stock and resigned”. The federal government then set up a policy intended to attract the ‘desirable’ immigrants by paying their passage, while granting itself the right (1890) to refuse the entry of immigrants from Africa or Asia. During this period, however, it did not have the means to control the migratory process and the States, notably Saõ Paolo, challenged its prerogative in this domain and profited from their autonomy to finance the arrival of Japanese immigrants between 1908 and 1922.

The First World War marked a turning point. The influx from Europe diminished considerably and Brazilian elites began to fear the emergence of non-native minorities who could threaten the integrity of the Brazilian territory. This new context allowed the federal government to regain the upper hand with regard to immigration. A 1921 decree, known as the “law on undesirables”, denied entry to the elderly, the sick and the poorest of the immigrants. It also gave the government the possibility of deporting immigrants present for less than five years if they were deemed likely to threaten the public order.
During the years that followed, several enforcement orders were issued to regulate the application of this policy. They introduced strict health checks on the migrant population, strengthened the State’s control over shipping companies and defined the population subject to these new provisions. They also made the mechanism even more severe by prohibiting access to the Brazilian territory and granting of visas to immigrants who would be liable to deportation under the legislation in force,.

The implementation of this policy was accompanied by a sharp debate over the identity of the populations that it was intended to exclude, and more specifically, the ‘races’—a term used to designate populations considered physically and culturally homogeneous rather than any biological reality—which were to be kept out. Several key moments marked this debate. In the early 1920s, for example, the project of a group of Afro-Americans to settle in Brazil gave rise to violent polemics and the refusal of the Brazilian government, which saw the plan as a threat to the ‘regeneration’ of the Brazilian population and feared the birth of Black nationalism.

The debate was to lead to the introduction of a bill aimed at prohibiting the entry of migrants belonging to the Black ‘race’. The bill was defeated, but its initiators were to try again in 1924 by introducing—no more successfully—a second bill which incorporated the measures of the first and in addition, restricted the entry of the ‘yellow race’ as well.

These attempts provoked a counter-offensive by landowners from Brazil’s outlying regions which attracted few European immigrants. Deprived of this pool of immigrant labour, the landowners wanted to maintain the possibility of recruiting Japanese workers. To this end, they widely distributed a questionnaire dealing with the desirability of immigration. The analysis of the 166 replies they received permits us to identify three criteria of desirability which were widespread in Brazilian society at that time : 

The ‘racial quality’ of the immigrant population, which was to allow

While these criteria were widely shared, there was no consensus about how they were to be applied to the Japanese population. Negative stereotypes were largely predominant but this was, paradoxically, due to the fact that the power and cohesiveness of Japanese civilisation gave rise to fears about the creation of non-native minorities or the subversion of the Brazilian system and its values, which reflects a conception of the State where political legitimacy was based on the physical and cultural unity of its people.

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