The line between legitimate indignation and racial slur

The Brazilian news and many of the immigration forums to which I belong have been consumed this week with the news of a group of Brazilian grad students who were denied entry into Spain and sent back to Brazil after being held for three days at Barajas airport, in Madrid. They were on their way to a conference in Portugal, paid for by their university, and the whole of Brazil has been on a frenzy recently about the way they were treated.

I don’t doubt the intentions of the grad students in question. And I do feel that they have perhaps paid the price for the hundreds of thousands of Brazilian illegal immigrants flooding into Europe – particularly the Iberian countries – and the recent backlash against illegal immigration in Spain. Brazilians don’t need a visa to get into any EU country but, as in most places in the world, they do need to satisfy the customs officer at their entry point that they only intend to stay temporarily and have enough means to support themselves during their stay. There’s much misinformation in Brazil about what a visa waiver actually means – many believe that because they don’t need a visa they can just show up and walk in.

However easy crossing a border might have been in the past, ever since 9-11 and renewed pressure over a country’s foreign population – particularly the illegal kind – traveling has become less than fun in many parts of the world. I have flown in and out of the US since 1997 – often just to connect on my way from Brazil to Canada, but occasionally to visit friends or go to a conference – and never had a problem. Sure, there was the one time the customs lady yelled at me because I forgot to fill in some information at a form and told me to get back to the end of the line, but other than that, I always went and in and out without much fuss until the new security measures were put into place. Being fingerprinted and photographed last time I crossed the border to attend a conference left a sour taste in my mouth indeed. But the more one travels the more we can see that this sort of behavious by customs agents are not exclusive of one nation or another. Not too long ago, we had the infamous case of the Polish immigrant who died after being tasered by police in Vancouver, and I have seen people denied entry and deported in every international airport I’ve been to. Conditions are never ideal in these cases.

It is also worth noting that Spain has been under constant pressure by other EU members to keep a closer look at its borders since the country is one of the main ports of entry into Europe for people coming from South America and Africa. The Spanish government was heavily criticized by countries such as England and Germany when it legalized thousands of illegal immigrants a few years ago.

Having said all that, I think the Brazilians who feel unjustly treated by Spanish authorities have every reason to go to the media and complain about their case and attempt to get at least some sort of apology from the Spanish government. What scares me, however, is how quickly indignation has slipped into racism and irrational hatred in this case. I wasn’t really going to talk about it here but earlier today, a Brazilian friend who lived in Madrid forwarded to me some of the many angry emails she got in response to a post she wrote in her blog about the case. She tried to put the event in the context of the larger pattern of illegal immigration into Spain and Portugal and the level of attacks she got was shocking. Most had racial undertones, calling Spain & Portugal and “Arab nation” that “thinks” it is European, that in fact they should open their doors to the Italo-Brazilians so that their country could be “whitened”, and how dare a Bedouin-looking Spanish immigration officer call an Italo-Brazilian and a “teutonic-Brazilian” dogs… I’m not making this up. That’s what they said.

And then I call home and both my parents go on and on about how awful Spain and the Spaniards are. First they come and buy all kinds of Brazilian companies (Spain has invested heavily in Brazil in recent years) and now they treat Brazilians like that. When I tried to explain that the story is not so simple and that we should be careful about overgeneralizing, I was given a big speech about how they’ll never go to Spain again and ask how could I like that country, etc.

It troubles me to see how otherwise rational people can jump to irrational fears and conspiracies, to an us-vs-them debate, and in some cases, to slander and racism. But I guess I need to come to terms with phenomena such as these if I seek to understand popular violence in the past.

Update:

Every single news article mention that about 3,500 Brazilians were denied entry into Spain last year. My first thought after reading that was: Wow, that seems like a lot, I wonder how many Brazilian have visited Spain in the same time period. Nothing that a quick research couldn’t find – apparently 280,000 Brazilians visited Spain in 2006 and last year’s numbers are estimated to have been at least 20% higher. Now, I’m no mathematician, but if 280,000 got in and 3,500 were sent home, that amounts to 1-2% of Brazilians being denied entry. In other words, 98% have no trouble getting into Spain. It seems hardly the closing of doors that some people claim.