MIAMI—Ask rich Brazilians why they are relocating to South Florida, and they cite Brazil’s high crime rates and moribund economy.
But there is another one-word explanation that Alyce M. Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, heard frequently on a recent business trip to Brazil: “Dilma.”
That would be Dilma Rousseff , the center-left president who was re-elected in October and is generally loathed by Brazil’s elites.
“After the last election, we were talking to a lot of people concerned about getting their capital out of Brazil,” Ms. Robertson said recently in Miami. These people’s concerns, both in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, were “mostly about the politics.”
Brazil’s wealthy and powerful have been buying Miami luxury condos and indulging in Bal Harbour shopping sprees for decades. But in recent months a number of Brazilians have reacted to Ms. Rousseff’s re-election by seeking to lay down longer-term roots in greater Miami and, to a lesser extent, Orlando, New York and Boston.
Although exact figures aren’t available, Miami-based developers, real-estate agents, bankers, retailers and immigration lawyers say growing numbers of wealthy Brazilians are trying to move to the region, set up businesses there, and trying to obtain residency or citizenship for themselves and their families.
“Mainly they feel concerned about the instability of Brazil’s political environment; they don’t want to be the last ones to leave,” said Genilde Guerra, an attorney at Miami-based Kravitz & Guerra law offices.
Ms. Guerra said that the number of phone calls her office receives from Brazilians seeking help in obtaining U.S. visas, buying homes or starting businesses stateside has increased tenfold since the election. And the number of emails she receives daily about getting a green card rose from three or four a day before the election to 25 or 30 a day afterward.
“They want to have a second nationality, a second place to go, and the U.S. is the best place for that,” Ms. Guerra said.
Typical of these upper-class exiles is Regina Sposito Pires, a 45-year-old São Paulo homemaker who was recently scouting for a home in Miami with her family. After considering a move for some time, she made up her mind on Oct. 26 when Ms. Rousseff won a second four-year term in a tight race.
“It was like somebody died,” Ms. Pires said, citing her frustration with Brazil’s high crime rates and government corruption. “I told my husband that what little desire I had to stay in Brazil was gone.”
José Antonio Parada has also joined the exodus. The day after Ms. Rousseff’s re-election, he resolved to fulfill his longtime pledge to move his family to Florida, where he already owns several investment properties, citing politics and security.
“I am very concerned about the [Brazilian] government’s proximity to other governments like Venezuela, Cuba,” the 48-year-old São Paulo currency broker said, adding that his São Paulo house was broken into twice—once when he was at home.
Nearly three million Brazilians live outside their country of 200 million, according to 2013 data from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, about one-third of them in the U.S. Companies that monitor Brazilians doing business in Florida believe that about 250,000 to 300,000 Brazilians now live in the Sunshine State.
Brazilians also account for a majority of Miami’s tourists, 51% in 2013, and its cumulative investments, $1.7 billion, Miami statistics show.
The latest wave of Brazilians migrants tends to differ from prior ones. During the ’80s and ’90s, unemployment and high inflation in Brazil pushed thousands of Brazilians to move to the U.S. Many took jobs as unskilled laborers and sent as much money home as possible.
Today’s Brazilian migrants are likely to bring their wealth with them. Like other Latin Americans, including Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans, Brazilians have long regarded Miami as a safe place to park their money during periods of political and economic upheaval at home.
Brazilians are among Miami’s top three foreign buyers of high-price real estate, along with Argentines and Venezuelans, two other troubled economies. That is despite—or, some say, because of—the dramatic weakening of Brazil’s economy.In the past year, Brazil’s currency, the real, has lost about a fifth of its value against the dollar. The country’s inflation rate is nearing the government’s target limit of 6.5%, and economists project the GDP to barely budge this year. It is a big turnaround from the previous decade when a commodities boom fueled strong growth and Brazil became a star among emerging market economies.
Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, whose Cuban-American family owns a Miami real-estate company, said Brazilian business people started buying luxury units in one residential tower on Miami’s Brickell Ave. neighborhood in the early 1980s, a time of high inflation and stagnation in Brazil.
“The people that moved into that building were so powerful that they started referring to that building as the Brazilian congress,” Ms. Cervera said.
Cristiano Piquet, a Brazilian former race-car champion who now sells high-end Florida real estate, said that in 2014 “we could not keep up with the demand” from Brazilian clients, who are doubling down on their U.S. investments.
“They’ve been making money for the last 12 years, so they have their pockets full of cash,” Mr. Piquet said.
Mr. Piquet said that more Brazilians now are buying and renting commercial income properties as well as homes.
“Office buildings, warehouses, hospitals—we just sold an L.A. Fitness [in Miami] for a Brazilian guy,” Mr. Piquet said. “A Brazilian bought a car dealership. And also they’re buying land and planning on developing.”
Brazilians coming to Miami increasingly find positive aspects of the lives they left behind: not only beaches and a tropical climate, but growing numbers of restaurants, nightclubs and retail stores catering to them.
“I don’t miss that much,” said Marco Fonseca, 47, a real-estate broker from Rio de Janeiro who became a U.S. citizen in 2001 and estimates that 65% of his clients are Brazilian.
“We have here everything that we need: movies, we have the Brazilian channels, the Brazilian supermarkets, you can buy a picanha,” Mr. Fonseca said, referring to a cut of beef prized by his countrymen.
“Miami is the biggest Brazilian city outside of Brazil right now.”