The author at a CARE Project training, a program featured in Hyphen's current print issue. Photo courtesy of author.
It seemed simple enough. Though I was groggy from the almost thirteen hour flight from San Francisco to Manila, filling out the routine customs form should have been easy. But it wasn't. As a second generation Filipina American returning to the Philippines for only the third time in my life, this time for research, I struggled to determine which of the boxes were relevant for me. Who was I? A visitor, balikbayan (nation returnee) or OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker)? What was my purpose there? Business, family or pleasure?
Upon touching down everybody on the plane had broken into applause and tears. I had joined them. The boxes couldn't capture how I felt about my relationship to the Philippines. And it was perhaps in that moment of perplexity and anxiety that the research questions which ultimately led to Migrants for Export were first formed. Why were Filipinos migrating so much to begin with, such that there was now a category of "OFWs"? What did the tearful yet excited applause by all of the passengers on the plane suggest about the kind of traumas migration produces? Since I had participated in the clapping and the crying, didn't it mean that somehow, in some way, no matter where I was born, I was a balikbayan too? How did these official categories originate and in what ways do they resonate, or not, with people? To what purpose are those categories deployed by the state and by migrants themselves?
In sum, my questions boiled down to 1) why does migration happen, 2) how does it happen, and 3) how does it impact how people think about where they belong? These questions led me to do interviews with government officials and migrants as well as an ethnography of the Philippine state. I would repeat that flight from San Francisco to Manila (and back again) every few years for nearly a decade.
Ethnography might seem an unusual choice for studying the state. After all, we typically associate ethnography with dusty and dirty anthropologists who trek into the deepest of jungles, scale the highest of mountains, and brave treacherous seas to participate in and observe the lives of untouched and unusual native Others. Ethnography, in many ways, is a method through which knowledge was produced to better control colonized populations. However, critical scholars have reclaimed ethnography as a method to subject powerful institutions to the kinds of close scrutiny once reserved for use on the powerless. For me especially, as someone whose family was displaced by the inequalities that structures of power produce, it was important to use a research method that would expose them.
And what did I find? I found that the Philippine state can be characterized as a "labor brokerage" state that actually mobilizes people for export. It has set up a virtual “assembly line” that facilitates the process of out-migration. In fact, its people have become such a profitable export for the Philippines that they rival electronics and garments (two products typically exported by Third World countries). The global scope and scale of Philippine labor migration are unmatched, as nearly 5000 people leave the country on a daily basis to work in hundreds of countries around the world. The Philippines is actually held up as “model” of so-called “migration management” for its ability so easily to supply the world’s labor markets with cheap workers. In this moment of global economic crisis, employers are all the more interested in securing labor for which they have to pay very little.
Labor export, however, is a rather peculiar policy; that a state would actually ship its citizens off to faraway lands to eke out a survival is actually quite absurd. Yet, that is what the Philippines has been doing since the policy was first promulgated by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1974. To be fair, Marcos did not come up with the idea of exporting his people all on his own; the export of labor from the Philippines has its beginnings in the colonial labor system set up by the United States. The United States began actively to recruit and facilitate the out-migration of Filipinos from the Philippines when various US Exclusion Acts barred the entry of other Asian immigrants. As US “nationals” then, Filipinos were exempt from those exclusions. Today, the Philippine state remains ever beholden to US demands, including US global capital's continued demand for cheap labor. On the one hand, the Philippines continues to supply workers to US labor markets; that's why the Philippines has been and continues to be one of the top-sending countries to the US. On the other, hand it supplies workers to firms producing for US markets. A labor recruiter for garments factories in Southeast Asia once told me that tags in clothing from the Gap or Old Navy and other retailers reading “Made in Malaysia” or “Made in Brunei” should actually read “Made by Filipinos,” as Filipinos are providing the labor for the firms operating in those countries.
Once neocolonial structures that ultimately forced people to migrate were put into motion, the tide was difficult to stop, as it became progressively more difficult for Filipinos to find secure and sustainable livelihoods at home. Recognizing that, the Philippine state opportunistically moved in to manage and control migration for its own purposes. Not only is labor export incredibly profitable, it’s politically expedient. The export of workers allows the state to project itself as "doing something" about joblessness and landlessness. By creating opportunities through which its citizens can be employed, albeit overseas, the state ducks responsibility for creating jobs that offer livable wages and implementing genuine land reform at home.
So advantageous is labor export for the Philippine government, that migration has come to be represented as some kind of patriotic act, and migrants are referred to as “new national heroes.” In fact, the official term for migrants used to be “overseas contract workers” (or OCWs), but was changed to “overseas Filipino workers” (or OFWs) to emphasize migrants’ Filipino-ness. Moreover, the state uses the term “balikbayan” to call even those who have left the Philippines permanently “returnees.” The state needs to enfold them back into the nation-state: to sustain their ties to their erstwhile homeland for the purpose of generating a healthy supply of remittances.
For the most part, research on immigration to the US has focused on US immigration law, like the 1965 Immigration Act, to make sense of more recent migration flows to this country. Yet, I think that by not paying attention to the global context for migration, including the role of labor-exporting states like the Philippines, we cannot see the whole picture of the complex structures that shape processes of migration and constrain migrants’ lives when they get here.
According to the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), an alliance with which I’ve worked closely for some time now, one of the biggest issues confronting the US Filipino community is undocumented migration due to the family-reunification backlog. That is, though US immigration policy favors the reunification of families, the waiting period for the issuance of family-based visas is absurdly long. In my own family, for instance, my father’s petition for my uncle took over twenty years to be approved. My uncle’s family got the approval letter in the mail only after he had already passed away. What ends up happening is that Filipinos, too anxious to join their families (the norm in the Philippines is to live in extended, rather than nuclear family forms), enter the US on tourist visas but overstay those visas and are rendered undocumented. Like other undocumented immigrants, they face the constant threat of deportation and are subject to extreme forms of exploitation. Though the Department of Homeland Security’s slowness in processing these visa applications can partially explain this situation, it must also be understood as being linked to the Philippine government’s neoliberal policies, including its system of labor brokerage. NAFCON has also found that Filipinos are increasingly coming into the US on short-term (H1B and H2B) visas, like their counterparts in other parts of the world. Indeed, because the Philippine state plays such an active role as a “broker” of labor, a sizeable percentage of H1B and H2B visa holders come from the Philippines. Though migrants are able to enter the US legally with these visas, they are often overworked and underpaid by their employers, who are emboldened to exploit them because they hold the migrants’ legal status in their hands. Some of the workers I work with at the Filipino Community Center in San Francisco, a NAFCON affiliate, ended up running away from employers who had brought them to the US with these visas. What that means, however, is that these workers have traded conditions of near-indentured servitude for undocumented status.
For NAFCON, Filipinos’ entry into the US through these short-term employment visas is ultimately a form of legalized labor trafficking, yet most calls for immigration reform in this country often favor the expansion of “guest worker” programs. This is probably not surprising. The first lesson one learns, as a student of Asian American studies is that the US has long demanded cheap labor and has often designated the least desirable, most difficult jobs to racialized Others from far-away lands -- yet this country refuses to embrace those workers as full members of the polity. Although today the US offers many (though not all) immigrants the chance to acquire formal citizenship, it has done so begrudgingly. Indeed, what the expansion of guest worker programs does is institutionalize foreign, racialized, workers’ exclusions from the nation-state and firms up capital’s grip on their lives and labor.
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Robyn Magalit Rodriguez is a long-time immigrant rights activist in the Filipino community. She is also an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis.
Rodriguez is featured in "Who Cares?" from Hyphen's Issue 25, a piece exploring the rights and abuses of API caregivers and domestic workers.
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