published 30 June 2007, MST
My friend Jennie turns 31 today. She’s doing so among strangers —people she’s known for less than a year but who have been kind enough to offer her a job in their home-based business—thousands of miles away from home. She remembers her birthdays in Manila, always crowded with friends, neighbors and relatives even when there’s not much food to go around. Now in Toronto, she barely has a birthday candle to wish on.
Prior to her Canadian adventure, Jennie was operations manager of an Ortigas-based call center. She was earning enough to cover the family’s expenses— she was maintaining the household, supporting her mother and putting her younger brother through medical school.
It came as no surprise that my friend, whom I had known since kindergarten, assumed leadership in her family upon her father’s death four years ago. She had always been intelligent and strong-willed. A broadcasting major, she was a university scholar in UP.
Until last year, she had never dreamed of working in any other part of the world. Indeed, she had refused—repeatedly— offers of relatives in the United States to have her immigration papers processed so she could start her own American dream.
So what is she doing in a North American suburb, and all on her own?
For someone as deliberate and calculating, Jennie, via e-mail, gives an uncharacteristic answer. “Fate pushed me to this direction,” she says, “until all I could do was to go along with it.” She says circumstances conspired to make her take this path. She was angling for a promotion, for which she thought she was ripe, and she didn’t get it. Then she noticed that even when she didn’t yet have children of her own, her existence was defined by looking forward to paydays. “In the meantime, I was perennially puyat, fatigued, harassed, living for others—all the signs pointing to a burnout.”
And then came the offer: A job as executive assistant, board and lodging, a respectable salary, and a free plane ticket, reminding her that she was needed— badly, and soon. How could she refuse?
Jennie is now pinning her hopes on the extension of her visa and her eventual eligibility to be an immigrant. She’s crossing her fingers, finding out too late that while it may be easy to gain entry to Canada (her visitor’s visa was delivered to her doorstep), it was difficult to regularize her status once there. Friends say the other way around is true for the United States down south—it was difficult to enter, but once you’re there, you can always be creative.
The best birthday gift, Jennie says, is an opportunity to spread her wings a bit more. Out there, she feels more of a Filipino that she ever did when she was back in Manila, reveling in uttering words in the vernacular and seeing how our values—especially family bonding— stand out in a foreign setting. She says she doesn’t believe in boundaries anyhow. For Jennie, it’s a vast patch of grass out there, and there is no need for fences. “It is up to us to find our best possible place under the sun.”
Meanwhile, down below, members of the US Congress are preparing to debate anew on specifics of the immigration bill being pushed by President George W. Bush and Democrat Senator Edward Kennedy.
The bill purports to pave the way for the legalization of the status of some 12 million undocumented immigrants. This has largely been viewed as an amnesty program for these illegal foreigners. Simultaneously, border controls will be tightened to discourage further influx of undocumented people. The bill will also make provisions for several hundreds of thousands of “guest workers” each year and will eventually replace the family-oriented immigration system with a merit-based one.
Of what concern is this to us, you ask? There are millions of Filipinos in the US. In fact, out of some 11 million documented Asian-Americans, those of Filipino origin are the second most populous at 2.4 million, next only to the 2.7 million Chinese there.
But of course, these are the legal ones, who are outside the purview of the proposed legislation.
The research firm American Friends Services Commission says more than half (54 percent) of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the US are from Mexico. Seven percent are from El Salvador, 3 percent from Guatemala, and 2 percent each for Canada, Haiti, and the Philippines. Foreigners from all other parts of the world make up the balance.
The largest concentrations of these illegal immigrants are in California (25 percent), Texas (14 percent), and Florida (9 percent).
But what does it mean to be undocumented? Wikipedia says that someone acquires illegal status through one of three ways: Entering the territory without authorization, staying in that territory beyond the authorized period after a legal entry (the 9/11 bomber, Mohammad Atta, was in the US under an expired visa), and violating the terms of the legal entry.
It’s a big deal over there, because of the implications of accommodating these immigrants. There are effects on the economy (supply of low-skilled, cheap labor as well as pressures on the welfare system), crime, terrorism, community health, the environment and many other factors.
In favor of the amnesty program are businesses, especially farm-based ones who rely on these migrants who are willing —thankful, even—to work for low wages. On the other hand, those staunchly opposed to “foreign invasion” believe that the costs of having these migrants among US nationals greatly outweigh the benefits.
The debates will be long—that we can say for sure. As we know, details, not pompous pronouncements, determine whether a law is good or bad for a particular group of people.
This immigration debate is a highly popular issue, close to the heart of millions of naturalized citizens who are already part of the American electorate. They will wield their power during next year’s presidential elections. Filipinos who are already there, as well as those even remotely planning on lining up at the immigration services unit of the US Embassy here, will no doubt be watching these developments.