Snapshot of 2 immigrant groups

Regional Brazilian, Dominican report to raise more legal, health questions

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / October 15, 2009

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A new comparison of two of the region’s largest immigrant groups suggests that Brazilians are more likely to be uninsured and to suffer high levels of stress than immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

Brazilians were also far more likely to be here illegally and less likely to file income taxes, according to the findings to be presented today at Boston City Hall.

The authors say that the study offers the first statistically credible estimates of the legal status, health, and integration of immigrants in a seven-county labor market in Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire and that the results raise major policy questions for federal, state, and local officials.

The Patrick administration is to unveil an ambitious proposal Nov. 17 to better integrate immigrants into the state, and Congress is expected to debate whether to allow the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants to apply for legal residency.

“I think we provide the most authoritative evidence to date on things that people have only talked about anecdotally,’’ said the principal investigator, Enrico Marcelli, an associate professor at San Diego State University who launched the project in 2007, when he worked at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “I’m sure not everybody’s happy about this.’’

The most controversial finding is that an estimated 71 percent of Brazilians are living illegally in the region, compared with 8 percent of Dominicans. Children in both groups were overwhelmingly here legally.

Many Brazilians worry that the study will fuel a backlash against illegal immigrants and overshadow the study’s broader findings that Brazilians lack health insurance and work in low-wage jobs. “Our concern was this is not the most important finding of the study,’’ said a Brazilian leader who declined to be identified because he is critical of the study.

But others said the findings cried out for creating a path to legal residency for Brazilians, a group that has become the second-largest individual group in Massachusetts, after Chinese immigrants. Dominicans are the third-largest group, according to the census.

“If these numbers are true, that speaks to the emergency need for immigration reform and getting people legalized,’’ said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Those who oppose illegal immigration say the study casts doubt on the benefits of offering illegal immigrants legal residency, since Dominican immigrants are still struggling despite their legal status.

“It’s not necessarily improving their prospects or success in the United States so much,’’ said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies.

The study - funded by the National Institutes of Health, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation - examined 2007 census figures and other data for immigrants in Suffolk, Essex, Middlesex, Plymouth, and Norfolk counties in Massachusetts and Rockingham and Strafford Counties in Southern New Hampshire, a region that is a federally designated labor market.

The study is also based on home interviews with more than 600 immigrants, in which interviewers asked about everything from immigrants’ marital status to their Internet usage. The project is a joint effort of Harvard and UMass-Boston and two community groups, the Brazilian Immigrant Center and the Dominican Development Center. The interviewers were all immigrants themselves, Marcelli said.

The findings, presented in two reports, present both grim and hopeful statistics about each community.

Dominicans arrived first in the 1960s, after the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo, while Brazilians arrived in large numbers in the 1990s, after the 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants in the United States, which helps explain why so many are here illegally.

Each group is estimated at 64,000 in the region, which Marcelli said is higher than census estimates.

Both groups overwhelmingly told researchers that they came here to work, and they have been credited with revitalizing cities and towns, from Brazilian shops in downtown Framingham to Dominicans who now dominate Lawrence, where an immigrant, state Representative William Lantigua, is a leading contender to be the city’s first Latino mayor.

Only 8 percent of Dominicans and 1 percent of Brazilians relied on welfare. Eighty percent of Dominicans paid income taxes, but only half of Brazilians did.

Each group also faces serious obstacles in their quest for the American dream.

They work low-wage jobs; Dominicans earned $25,500 a year on average while Brazilians earned more than $29,000.

A majority do not speak English well, and both groups suffered above-average levels of psychological stress: 7.3 percent of Brazilian adults and 4.1 percent of Dominican adults experienced “serious psychological distress,’’ compared with 2.9 percent of adults nationally.

About 60 percent of Brazilians lacked health insurance, along with 20 percent of Dominicans.

A potential barrier to integrating immigrants, besides language, are the varying levels of trust in the government and the knowledge of existing services to help immigrants.

Brazilians tended to have more trust in the US government than in their own: 51 percent trusted the government to do the right thing, compared with 23 percent of Dominicans.

Magalis Troncoso, director of the Dominican Development Center, said the report will help them better organize and provide resources that immigrants need.

“Our goal is to use the results and reflect to start to organize the Dominican community,’’ Troncoso said. “I don’t think you can organize if you do not really know the situation and the needs of the community.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at