SAO PAULO – Under a scorching sun, dozens of Haitians shuffled impatiently about the brick-walled courtyard of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church. The sight of an approaching employer sparked a skirmish, with the men pushing against each other, jostling for attention.
"How many people you need?," several men shouted. "I need a job, what do you want me to do?" No matter what the job was, someone in the crowd yelled out, "I can do that!"
There are fewer jobs in Brazil than there are Haitians looking for work. An open-door policy intended to help migrants from the impoverished island is fueling Brazil's largest immigration wave since World War II and prompting calls for lawmakers to do more to help the new arrivals.
"Seeing so many seeking jobs and so much hunger for work, it creates tension," said the Rev. Paolo Parise, a priest who directs the parish's efforts to help Haitian migrants and other impoverished newcomers.
While Haiti is picking itself up from the 7.0 earthquake that devastated its capital in 2010, progress has not been enough to keep tens of thousands of Haitians from chasing opportunities abroad, mainly in the United States and the Dominican Republic. But Brazil also has become an attractive landing spot for migrants eager to find a toehold in Latin America's biggest economy.
Brazil has no limit on the number of humanitarian visas it issues to Haitians. National Migration Council figures suggest more than 52,000 Haitians have migrated since 2012 and have become the country's largest group of foreign laborers, outpacing Portuguese who long held the top spot.
"No other country opened the doors for them like Brazil," said Duval Magalhaes, a demographer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais state who has researched the Haitian migration in Brazil.
Wooldeens Turenne, 23, once earned a reliable income guiding missionary workers helping quake victims in Haiti. But such work gradually dried up and, last year, Turenne saw it was time to leave. Despite being fluent in English, going to the United States wasn't an option due to its restrictive immigration laws. Instead, he flew to Panama, then Ecuador, where he received his visa to enter Brazil. He then flew to Sao Paulo.
Jobs can be found in construction, agriculture and factories, but the salaries barely cover Brazil's high cost of living, let alone leave Haitians enough money to support family back home. Employers know Haitians are desperate, and commonly pay them $300 to $400 a month, barely above the legal minimum.
"If they know you are an immigrant, they don't pay you the salary they are supposed to, and they will give you a lot of work to do," Turenne said. "It's better than Haiti, yes, but it's not possible to make a good living."
Two out of three companies interested in hiring migrants through Parise's church are turned away because they don't want to comply with labor laws, or their work sites don't meet safety standards.
Migrant advocates say the Haitians also face racial discrimination, and many struggle to understand Portuguese. Trying to survive on sporadic and meager incomes, most crowd into shared rooms amid the poorest slums ringing cities such as Sao Paulo.
Brazil has gone through a construction boom, both due to an economic expansion that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and because of public works projects tied to last year's World Cup and next year's Olympics. But the economy is now sluggish, contracting the first half of 2014 and barely moving as the year closed.
That hasn't stemmed the flow of Haitians. Migrant advocates are urging the government to do more, such as allowing those who arrive without visas to apply for them in Brazil, a step that would circumvent a cumbersome process in which they first must seek refugee status. They also complain Brazil needs to provide more shelters for new arrivals and do more to integrate them into society.
"Brazil is giving them a piece of paper (a visa), but there is no public policy of integration," Parise said.
Bernado Franck has spent the past year trying to establish himself in Brazil. While he practiced law in his hometown of Saint-Marc, he's found that landing any job in Brazil is hard, let alone one with salary he can live on. He's been out of work for the last four months.
"We heard so many good things about Brazil, but I am not finding anything," the 28-year-old Franck said at the church yard. "I want to help my mom and family back home; I have to eat and pay rent. How do they expect me to improve my life?"