Pieces of the Dream

Three stories from Framingham show the American Dream is still a powerful lure for immigrants who come here in search of what they cannot find at home

The American Dream knows no borders. The often-quoted lines on the Statue of Lib­erty’s ped­estal, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” underscore the tradition of open-armed welcome that Ameri­cans give to people seeking the political freedoms or economic opportunities denied to them in their homelands.

In reality, however, there has always been an uneasy relationship between native-born Americans and immigrants. Benjamin Franklin worried that German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania would outnumber the native-born and threaten the supremacy of the English language. “Even our Government will become precarious,” he wrote.

Franklin’s complaints aren’t far off the mark from current anti-immigrant sentiments. In the past decade, it has become almost patriotic to call for undocumented people to pack up and go home. Fears about competition for jobs and downward pressure on wages from illegal workers fuel resentment. Recent incidents, like the case of an undocumented Ecuadorian man who allegedly killed a young Mil­ford motorcyclist while driving intoxicated, dial up tensions even more.

There are roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. An estimated 190,000 undocumented people live in the Bay State, a low figure compared to other states.

Illegal immigrants dominate the headlines, but they are only a small part of the immigration picture. Many people come here legally, work hard for their money, and transform their cities and towns for the better. More than 900,000 immigrants live in the Bay State.

Brazilians are the largest group of foreign-born residents in the state and the largest group in Framingham. Of the more than 68,000 residents of Framingham, roughly 7,000 identify as Brazilian, according to a 2009 US Census Bureau estimate. Brazilians confront many of the same challenges that earlier waves of immigrants did when they arrived. But many Brazilians point out that the goals that the average worker back home can only dream of—opening a business, buying a home, or getting a college degree —are possible in America through perseverance and hard work.

Framingham is a place where many of those experiences converge: Entrepreneurs working hard to gain a foothold in a recession-battered economy; an undocumented student agonizing about the choices his parents made; and a long-time resident, an immigrant himself, who wrestles with the questions raised by the debate over illegal immigrants.

A smart move

If Alceu Venturoso is proud of the fresh beef, chicken and other meats behind the gleaming butcher counter, he’s prouder still of his selection of sausages. He reels off the choices: chicken, pork and beef, smoked, Italian, Jamaican jerk, and country style. The store also has an on-site bakery and there are plans in the works to add a sandwich counter and fresh pasta to go.

 

Alceu and Barbara Venturoso are hoping their specialty meat shop, Smart Market, will prove to be
a smart investment.

Venturoso and his wife Barbara own Smart Market. Like most small business owners, they do everything from bagging groceries to managing the finances. The specialty meat store is a short walk up Hollis Street beyond the Framingham commuter rail station, past several small grocery and convenience stores. Market Basket and Shaw’s are less than two miles away.

But Venturoso is not worried about his competitors. The cheerful, burly businessman is banking on the meats, plus butchers who speak English, Portuguese, and Spanish, to seal the deal with customers craving quality products. “We heard a lot of people saying, ‘I grocery shop at Market Basket, but I don’t buy meat there,’” says Venturoso. “When they come here, they say, ‘You have very good stuff.’” The couple is onto something: Nine months after opening, the store has tripled the sales volume of its early months.

The Venturosos are part of the surge in immigration to the US in recent years among people continuing the long-running story of newcomers seeking a better life on America’s shores.

As the director of logistics for a supermarket products wholesaler in Brazil, Venturoso helped the company to set up soup-to-nuts training for small businesses: how to buy products, fix up a store, and manage finances. The experience persuaded him to strike out on his own.

America continues to have a certain allure even for prosperous international professionals. Venturoso was doing quite well in Brazil, but business travel in the fifth largest country in the world wore him down. In 2005, he took a year-long sabbatical to study English at Mount Ida College in Newton and Worcester State University. After growing up in a small city in the state of São Paolo and living all over Brazil, he found that he enjoyed the American quality of life. Bureaucracies were easier to navigate and crime was much lower than in big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro back home.

The US has been welcoming to professionals who have a concrete business strategy that aims to produce jobs for American workers. Armed with a business plan, Ven­tur­oso came back to the country in 2009 on a visa that allowed him to invest in and run a small commercial enterprise. The couple expects to receive their green cards shortly and plan to become American citizens. “The reality of the American Dream is that more people can reach something [here] than in Brazil,” says Venturoso.

Having friends in the Boston and Wor­cester areas persuaded them to settle in the Bay State. Their big break came when a small store came up for sale downtown and they swooped in to buy it. Last September, the Ventur­osos traded in that store for the larger 3,500 square-foot space where they renovated everything from the basement to the roof. The previous market closed after being cited for health code violations, and they wanted to do everything by the book. “We worked hard with them,” says Ethan Mascoop, the Framingham public health director.

The Venturosos also run a second venture, Earth and Stone Landscaping (“our baby” the couple calls it) that they hope to grow into a full-scale construction company. Ven­turoso, 51, is a mechanical engineer by training; Barbara, 35, is an architect. 

The couple does not have any children. (Venturoso has a 24-year-old daughter from his first marriage who lives in Brazil.) Between the two businesses, they work anywhere from 40 to 70 hours or more a week. They employ eight people and expect to hire up to 20 in the next two years.

Businesses with expansion potential “are extremely important…because those are the ones that provide local jobs,” says Marcia Drew Hohn, director of the Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute, an adult education center in Malden. What’s more, immigrant entrepreneurs who invest in areas that have been in decline for years help revitalize neighborhoods.

The Brazilians arrived in Framingham in the late 1980s, mainly from the city of Governador Valadares, north of Rio de Janiero, to find a central business district that was a ghost town overrun by drug dealers and prostitutes. Shoppers’ World on Route 9 had helped kill off downtown commerce.

The first storefront businesses in the high crime/low-rent district were money transfer centers that the new immigrants used to send funds back home to their families. Simple buffet-style restaurants and bakery-cafes followed where people could grab a quick meal or watch “telenovelas,” soap operas, or soccer games. Crime dropped; foot traffic increased. Brazilian business people moved the downtown a notch above other town centers that experienced similar boom-bust cycles.

The Venturosos see that the center could still use some sprucing up to attract more businesses. “We don’t think people like to walk downtown,” Barbara says. They aren’t alone in recognizing that Framingham needs to do something about the charmless area. But what exactly? Boston’s North End, that city’s “Little Italy,” is one model for turning an immigrant neighborhood into a go-to destination, but Framingham has never tried to cultivate a “Little Brazil” downtown. Others think about a move “upscale” by promoting assets like the Danforth Museum of Art to attract artists and the culture-vultures who follow them. Not everyone is onboard with that idea either. “I go to Starbucks, but is that what we need?” says Ilma Paixão, general manager of WSRO 650 AM, a Brazilian radio station. Framingham has never tried to cultivate a “Little Brazil” downtown.“Nobody has a plan that everyone can agree on,” says Bonnie Biocchi, president of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce. Until Framingham comes up with one, “it will continue to be hard for the identity of the downtown to take hold,” she adds.

Face-to-face communication is also an issue. “Quite honestly, and there really is no delicate way of saying this, there is, in fact or perception, a language barrier issue,” says Alison Steinfeld, Framingham’s community and economic development director. The downtown survey confirmed that many residents think that no one in the Brazilian shops speaks English. But the group also found that 99 percent of Brazilian businesses surveyed have at least one English speaker.

“That’s a big obstacle to overcome when you are asking traditional American buyers to come into stores that they are not familiar with,” says Ted Welte, a former Metro­West Chamber of Commerce president who volunteers with Framingham Downtown Renaissance, a public-private partnership working on economic development initiatives in the center.

The town has contributed $30,000 toward a Fram­ing­ham Downtown Renaissance initiative to hire a person to improve contacts between all small business owners and the town officials on issues like marketing and signage. The Venturosos and other Brazilian business owners also are talking about how to improve opportunities for everyone. “Most of them sell only to Brazilians,” Venturoso says of the small stores downtown. “Now they need to sell to others.”

Smart Market once sold mostly Brazilian products. Now the store sells a mix of Brazilian and Latin foods and they are adding American, Caribbean, and African goods. “If you are staying with only one community, it’s going to be hard,” says Barbara. “We knew that from the beginning.”

“You cannot forget that you are in the USA,” adds Venturoso with a smile. “We try to have something good for everybody.”

Education or deportation?

“It’s over.”

With those words from his brother, Denis Lemos’s world fell apart. In 2009, the University of Massachusetts Lowell computer engineering student was studying for his final exams when his twin brother called to tell him that their green card applications had been denied. “That was the thing I feared the most,” Lemos says. Soon afterward, he dropped out of college.

 

UMass Lowell student Denis Lemos is hoping to
be able to stay in the US.

Lemos and young people like him find themselves bet­ween a rock and a hard place. They have grown up Ameri­can but cannot fully participate in the life of the country because their parents made decisions that put their children in legal jeopardy.

The application process had been going on for about 10 years. Lemos came to the US in 2000 at age 14 with his family from the Brazilian city of Anápolis. When the São Paulo public electric company went private, his father lost his job there as a manager. Using funds from the severance package, Lemos’s parents decided to take their chances in the US. They wanted their sons to attend college and look forward to a better life. The family came to Massachusetts on tourist visas, but remained after the documents expired.

They first settled in Framingham. The year after they arrived, his father found a company willing to hire him. Since he had a sponsor, they were allowed to apply for green cards, which, in turn, meant that the family received Social Security numbers.

After middle school, Lemos attended Framingham High while working 32 hours a week as a waiter. By the time he graduated in 2005, he was too tired to think about a four-year college workload, especially since his green card hadn’t come through yet. Instead, Lemos enrolled at MassBay Community College in Wellesley where he completed an associate’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2009.

During a college fair at MassBay, Carlos Fortoura, a long-time Brazilian friend, came up with an idea. He wanted to go to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and he en­couraged Lemos to apply as well. “‘We can be roommates,’” Lemos remembers him saying.

Lemos paid cash for the first semester’s tuition and housing, using proceeds from the sale of a house that his parents owned in Milford. Lemos thought life was good. He was a full-time computer engineering student living in a dorm. “That was my dream,” he says. “You see movies like that.”

After selling the house, Lemos’s father, who worked as a printer and carpet installer, and his mother, who worked as a hotel chambermaid and later as a cafeteria worker, returned to Brazil. Nearing retirement age, they were ex­hausted by the nearly 10-year residency battle.

Now here on his own, at age 25, Lemos faces deportation. “I am not going to say it was a mistake, because it was what my parents decided to do given the situation,” says the tall, dark-haired young man who sports a stylish five o’clock shadow.

As he prepared for his first deportation hearing earlier this year, Lemos learned about the Student Immigrant Movement, a Massachusetts network of immigrant youth. The group is helping him fight deportation. Lemos now campaigns for both the federal Dream Act and a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts. The federal proposal would provide a six-year pathway to citizenship for some undocumented young people who graduate from college or serve two years in the military.

Lemos calls his plight “a wasted opportunity.” For him, living the American Dream means finding a job that he loves, spending time with friends, having a girlfriend, and eventually getting married. “You have this group of people who call themselves American, who speak English,” he says. “They want to do well because they already grew up in hardship.”

Lemos has attracted some muscle for his cause. Sen. John Kerry, a Dream Act co-sponsor, assists students who would qualify for residency if the Dream Act ever became law. Kerry wrote US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking the department to stop the proceedings against Lemos, citing his “exceptional qualities.” “We need people like him here,” Rep. Story says of Lemos.“Because they are young, because they feel that they are truly being discriminated against…and punished for the acts of their parents, I think they’ve been emboldened to speak out and become activists,” says Kirk Carter, a Fram­ing­ham immigration attorney of students in this situation.

Legislation pending on Beacon Hill would allow un­documented Massachusetts high school graduates who can prove at least three years of state residency to pay in-state tuition rates. They would not receive free tuition, a common misconception about the bill, and would not be eligible for state or federal financial aid.

A 2006 Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report found that the state higher education system stands to gain millions of dollars in new revenues under the bill. If the in-state tuition policy for public colleges and universities had been in place in 2009, up to 660 undocumented students would have enrolled, bringing in between $2.1 and $2.7 million.

State Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Demo­crat, met Lemos in August and is also supporting his bid. “He’s smart, he’s hard working, and we need people like him here,” she says.

There is support for the students—and interest in the new revenues, according to Eva Millona, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Co­alition. “But the votes are not quite there to pass legislation at this point,” she says of the measure, which Gov. Deval Patrick supports.

Immigration officials expect to apprehend 400,000 people this fiscal year, but the type of people being targeted for deportation has shifted. Under the Secure Com­mun­ities program, local law enforcement officials send fingerprints of people who have been arrested to the FBI to determine if they have criminal records. The FBI, in turn, sends fingerprints to Immigration and Customs En­forcement officials for crosschecking against immigration databases. The program has been relaxed in recent months to allow immigration officials to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in order to concentrate limited federal resources on undocumented criminals or people who threaten national security rather than college students who have stayed out of trouble.

Asked to explain why he is willing to speak so openly about his situation, Lemos laughs and throws up his arms. “They already got me,” he says. This fall, the UMass Lowell junior returned to his computer engineering studies. His next court date is in mid-December.

Playing by the rules

For Nicolás Sánchez, the United States is a country that takes the letter of law seriously. But for decades the federal government has been lax in enforcing its own immigration laws. The millions of undocumented people here are living proof of that contradiction, according to Sánchez.

 

Retired Holy Cross economics professor Nicolás Sánchez.

The 66-year-old Cuban immigrant wants all immigrants to follow the letter of the law just like he did. “The American Dream to me is to be ruled by law,” says the retired Holy Cross economics professor who has lived in Framingham for 33 years. “This is where illegal immigration does not fit in.”

However, he sees trying to expel every illegal immigrant as “insane.” By the same token, he says, current laws are too harsh: most people must return to their country of origin for 10 years before they can start the green card process. Sánchez would rather see undocumented students, for example, go back to their home countries for at least one year to learn about their native lands. “I want these individuals to make a deliberate choice that what they want to do is they want to be Americans,” he says.

Sánchez came to the United States at the age 15 in 1960 under the Pedro Pan program. The initiative allowed children of Cuban parents who opposed Fidel Castro, the former president, or feared Communist indoctrination in the schools to come to the US. His parents and his brother and sister followed later. Yet Sánchez held out hope that he could return to Cuba. Fifteen years passed before he finally gave up on the idea. He became a US citizen in 1980. He is fiercely proud of the fact that his family took legal routes to US citizenship, he says.

Married with two grown children, Sánchez has been active in politics with modest success, serving on Fram­ingham’s school and finance committees. But he has yet to move up the political ladder. He lost two races for state representative, most recently in 2006, and another for the board of selectmen earlier this year.

Sánchez’s views reflect a frustration in Framingham that is not about immigrants in general, but whether a person is here legally or not, according to Robert Anspach, chairman of the Framingham Human Relations Com­mis­sion. As the largest immigrant group in the town, Brazilians bear the brunt of that resentment. “People say…‘I’m a hard-working painter, but you get these illegal immigrants who are coming undercutting the price of doing a house,’” Anspach says.

Concerns about illegal immigration have brought Framingham unwanted notoriety. In August, the spotlight fell on Onyango Obama, the 67-year-old uncle of President Obama who lived illegally in the town for decades prior to his arrest for allegedly driving under the influence. Some of the debate has gone beyond healthy civic dialogue. In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, identified Fram­ing­ham’s Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Im­mig­ration Law Enforcement as a hate group. The local group has blamed Brazilians for crime in the town, kept tabs on day laborers, and once produced a local public access cable television program on illegal immigration.

Rick Holmes, the opinion editor of The MetroWest Daily News, says that immigration is a “really big deal” only for a few. “We’ve got a loud, anti-immigrant minority,” he says, “but when it comes to voting, Framingham is pretty liberal place.”

No one knows for certain how many illegal immigrants live in Framingham. A San Diego State University study published in 2009 estimated that about 70 percent of adult Brazilians in Framingham were undocumented. Critics of the report said the figure was high and that such conclusions often lead the general public to equate illegal immigrants with legal residents. Some undocumented people, ex­hausted by a fugitive-style existence, have returned to Brazil.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Others also have decamped to Brazil to take advantage of the country’s newly vibrant economy and leave the American recession behind. But it’s not mass exodus. “The percentage of Brazilians that went back is not as large as people have portrayed in the news,” says Vera Dias-Freitas, the Brazilian Outreach Liaison at MassBay Community College and a long-time community advocate.

Sánchez may speak for one strand of naturalized citizens who celebrate the opportunities that the US offers, but who want new arrivals to play by the rules as they did. He’s gotten accustomed to the puzzled reactions from people surprised at these views from an immigrant, but he is not about to back down. Immigrants should “come to America through the legal process,” Sánchez says. No one should get the privileges and benefits of citizenship “just because you are here.”