When I was a child, my mother dispensed informal legal advice at family get-togethers. Seated in a plastic lawn chair with a paper plate in her lap, she demystified immigration policy for many a rapt audience. She isn’t a lawyer.
At the time I simply assumed, as children do, that my mother knew everything. Years later, I realized that she honed her legal expertise out of necessity. I was two years old when she and I immigrated to the United States from Olongapo, Philippines; her careful legal navigation helped my dad enter the US and reunite our family. When people in our community find their residency status compromised, they often turn to my mother for help.
I live in Southern California, where Los Angeles County is home to the largest Filipino diaspora in the world. Filipinx people comprise the third-largest undocumented Asian ethnic group of the 1.6 million undocumented Asians and Asian Americans living in the US. Although undocumented immigration is rhetorically racialized as a Latinx issue, the Trump administration’s aims to deport up to 8 million immigrants , with or without criminal records, will inevitably bear consequences on Filipinx families as well.
Of the 4 million Filipinx and Filipinx Americans living in the United States, an estimated 271,000 are undocumented. It’s the silently acknowledged secret, the negative space that occupies a conversation. Your sister, is she still . . . ? If it’s not a family member, it’s a friend or acquaintance. The state is so widespread across kin networks that Filipinx people in the United States have a term for it: TNT. Tago nang tago. Literally, it translates to hiding and hiding .
The Philippines is a striking example of the role US imperialism played in prompting waves of immigration. When I spoke with Filipinx Americans in my own community, their journeys shed light on the many and complex circumstances that compel migration, underscoring the ways that mainstream US immigration discourse casts immigrants not as humans, but as capital. A piece of paper can make the difference between opportunity and criminality, freedom and relegation to the shadows.
We need to take into account the stories of TNT Filipinx Americans alongside narratives of other undocumented immigrants. In this article, names and other identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of those who spoke with me. That said, in order to provide a nuanced look at an issue that is often oversimplified, I will not spare legal details. Understanding the issues central to these immigrants’ narratives is a crucial step toward a more informed, humane understanding of immigration policies and needed reforms.
Jerome, a young man from Manila, had married his high school sweetheart and had three young sons. He worked as a videographer for the Philippine government. Over time, the physically demanding labor coupled with polluted air in Manila aggravated his severe asthma. He was hospitalized every week for months before he decided that he needed to leave.
In March 2000, Jerome arrived in Los Angeles on a category B-2 tourist visa. He planned to stay in the US for a few months, recover, then go home to his family. Since one cannot be employed on a tourist visa, he sought under-the-table work at a restaurant, where he received no wages (he managed to live on tips). Every night, he emailed his family in the Philippines.
Then a pager repair company that needed Jerome’s technical skills offered to pay him $150 a week, off the books. As an added incentive, the company would sponsor him for an H-1B visa. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines the H-1 visa as a “special occupation” working visa, which permits the holder to remain in the country for three years. Immediate family members (spouse and children under the age of twenty-one) of the H-1 holder are also admitted with H-4 visas.
Jerome’s employer even expressed the possibility of sponsoring him for an immigrant visa, also known as a green card, which would allow him lawful permanent residency. Jerome was thrilled. His new position would give him a more sustainable income, allow him to be reunited with his family, and enable them all to start a new, healthier chapter in their lives. He and his wife, Mariel, decided to live in America for awhile; if they found that their sons had better opportunities there, they would try to stay.
In March 2001, Mariel and her sons’ H-4 visas were approved. She sold the car, packed all of their belongings, and filled her three sons’ backpacks with chips and oranges for the long flight ahead.
Long-established patterns of migration precede Jerome and Mariel’s journey. Immigration is a direct product of American imperialism, whether immigrants come from a country disrupted by US foreign intervention, a country from which US agribusiness continues to incentivize migrant labor, or a former colony left in the economic lurch.
In her book The Making of Asian America , historian Erica Lee notes that Philippine-US migration transformed radically at the beginning of US colonial rule in 1898. At the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded its 300-year-long rule of the Philippines and the US government built military bases throughout the archipelago, enforced English language instruction, and used the islands’ strategic location to facilitate exports for American companies. Learning English and American norms at school compelled thousands of Filipinx people and their families to immigrate to the US in the 1900s. While racial quotas restricted immigration from other Asian countries, Filipinxs were granted a facilitated path to immigration as colonial subjects, though they faced hostile discrimination from white Americans upon arrival.
The Philippines gained independence in 1946. However, because the economy had been left under-industrialized and made entirely dependent on US commercial interests, the newly sovereign country struggled to compete in a rapidly advancing global economy. Today, widespread poverty, as well as the colonial legacy of teaching English in schools, continues to inspire many with the hope of one day coming to America. A 2013 study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center found that 40 percent of Filipinx college and high school students aim to work abroad, many in the United States or Canada. Remittances from overseas Filipinx workers accounts for 10 percent of the country’s GDP, CNBC reports . In many ways, the Philippines is still economically dependent on its imperialist interlopers.
Ivy dreamed of moving to America since she was a young girl. Years later, as an ICU nurse in Cabanatuan struggling to make ends meet, Ivy began to realize that moving to America was not only a dream, but also a potential lifeline. Even with a graduate degree, Ivy made the equivalent of forty dollars a month (not accounting for what she paid to help patients who could not afford their own medication). She applied for a single-entry B-2 tourist visa, and in 2000, when she was twenty-six years old, the visa arrived.
Ivy flew to California with one suitcase and four hundred dollars in her possession. With her education and experience, she found a hospital that offered to file an I-14o immigrant visa for her. The I-140, called the Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, allows an employer to petition for a worker to become a permanent resident.
Although Ivy was never in the country illegally, as a legally liminal person living in a climate of post-9/11 xenophobia, the stressors she experienced were similar to those that many undocumented immigrants face. The I-140 could not be approved for three years. Until then, her attorney said that “one mistake,” even the suspicion of a crime, could send her back to the Philippines. In 2002, Ivy was injured in a hit-and-run by a white male driver who ignored the stop sign and sped away. Rather than try to report a man who, she presumed, was a citizen, Ivy fled and treated her cuts and bruises at home.
Unease reporting crimes is not uncommon among undocumented immigrant victims. When law enforcement officers and agencies threaten to deport victims who report or seek protection, they permit and perpetuate abuse. Unsurprisingly, low-income and non-English-speaking immigrants are most frequently maltreated. Unless local police remain willfully oblivious to victims’ immigration status, as in “sanctuary cities,” many immigrants feel unsafe pressing charges or testifying as witnesses.
Knowing that one error could compromise her I-140 application, Ivy felt pressured to present herself as an “ideal immigrant.” She silently endured the trauma from the hit-and-run and tried to scrub the accent from her English. “You feel you have no choice,” she tells me.
Ivy cleaned houses while studying for the nursing bar. A few months after she had left the Philippines, she received a distressing phone call: Her father had been diagnosed with a rare respiratory disease. Because Ivy was on a single-entry visa, leaving to visit her family would preclude her re-entering the US. Her father insisted that she stay put. So she did. Later she received the call that her father passed away.
Since 1965, the US has espoused an explicitly merit- and market-based logic for admission of immigrants. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 , also known as the Hart-Celler Act, eliminated quotas based on race and nationality. Instead, admission would be based on skill and family relationships. As President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law, he declared that it represented a new and more just chapter of immigration admission: “Those who contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit—will be the first that are admitted to this land.”
While certainly less destructive than racial (and overtly racist) admissions criteria, the logic of the Hart-Celler Act frames immigrants primarily as economic actors appraised for their potential to benefit the US. What it does not take into account, and what perhaps demands reassessment for the twenty-first century, are the complex lives and needs and rights of immigrants themselves.
On paper, Ivy was a flawless immigrant; skilled and obedient, an advantageous investment. But her papers masked important context: Ivy’s need to care for her father and be cared for herself; her lasting isolation and grief. “You feel like you’re nothing,” she says.
Jerome, Mariel, and their sons were reunited on July 4, 2001. Their youngest son, Rey, who was nine years old at the time, remembers watching fireworks erupting in the sky that night.
They had a total of six years to find a way to stay. Jerome’s H-1B visa could be renewed once to grant an additional three years. After that, their H-1 and H-4 visas would expire, and the family would have to leave. But with their sons thriving and Jerome making a modest income, the path to the American Dream seemed within the family’s reach.
So of course Jerome and Mariel were caught off-guard when their immigration lawyer disappeared. The lawyer had promised to facilitate the family’s paperwork and charged exorbitant legal fees. Now the family was left with depleted resources and no legal support in a race against time.
That was only their first try.
The second try came in 2007. Every so often, Jerome’s company would sponsor one or two employees for a green card—another incentive for skilled immigrants to work for sub-minimum wages. Jerome waited anxiously to hear if he had been selected. The company ultimately declined to sponsor him, and his visa expired. Luckily, Mariel had found work at a restaurant that sponsored her for an H-1B and H-4 visas for her family.
They made it for another few years. Then the restaurant filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and Mariel lost her sponsorship. Their visas expired. After nearly ten years of doing everything right, Jerome, Mariel, and their sons were officially TNT.
Jerome and Mariel’s circumstances draw attention to the ways that immigrants are often treated as units of capital. Unscrupulous legal consultants are part of a private system of unfettered exploitation that targets undocumented residents. Avaricious employers and violent domestic partners , too, prey upon the fear, desperation, and limited social networks of undocumented immigrants.
Even the public sphere employs rhetoric that commodifies immigrants. USCIS specifies that applicants are admitted based on “extraordinary ability” or “outstanding” qualifications. The language implies valuation of immigrants based on their potential to return on investment. They are pressured to “contribute” to society in a way that US-born citizens are not.
“Hiding” is part of the mentality of being TNT. People go to my mother for legal advice because they know that she, unlike an unfamiliar lawyer, can be trusted. Simply by growing up in our community, you learn how to keep secrets for the people you love. Rey and I were practically raised together; Jerome is one of my dad’s friends—that’s why Rey, Ivy, Jerome, and Mariel all felt comfortable talking to me.
Here is where luck and privilege come into play in the supposed meritocracy of the US immigration system: My dad and Jerome were colleagues at the pager repair company. My dad was sponsored for a green card; Jerome was not. What separates Rey’s situation from mine is not work ethic or moral fiber, but the conspiring of arbitrary and exploitative forces.
Rey is twenty-five now. For now, he’s protected under , or DACA. Instituted by the Obama administration in 2012, DACA allows young undocumented people who were brought to the US as children, like Rey, to finish college and work legally. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
“I just don’t get that immigrants are lazy and we want their jobs. Like, which one is it?” Rey says to me, half-laughing. He adds, “Even though the Philippines is where I’m from, I’m American.”
At the time of our interview, the president had been vague about his intentions to dismantle DACA. However, a report from Politico released Sunday confirmed that ; as of this writing, the rollout of the decision has yet to be announced. the President will indeed end DACA
Since the election, Jerome and Mariel have considered moving back to the Philippines. But they know their sons, especially Rey, no longer consider it home. Rey’s two older brothers are married to US citizens, and by March 2018, they will be able to petition on behalf of their parents and Rey. With hope, the entire family will be on the path to legal permanent residency within four years.
For now, Mariel and Jerome are still TNT. Mariel is a cook. Jerome works as a driver and a night security guard. They are anxious about ICE raids, concerned about getting sick without health insurance—although undocumented immigrants pay taxes , they cannot qualify for Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act. For Jerome and Mariel, the psychological and emotional taxation of living in the shadows is now a way of life.
“You cannot do what you want,” Mariel says.
“You’re always on guard,” Jerome adds.
In 2006, weeks before Ivy’s H-1 visa was due to expire, an envelope arrived in the mail. She opened it, saw her permanent residency papers, and cried.
Ivy now lives in San Bernardino County. A few years after she became a permanent resident, she got married. She and her husband have a precocious five-year-old daughter named Hannah. For part of our interview, Hannah was happily nestled in her mother’s lap.
Ivy points out that Hannah, an American-born citizen, will never experience the kind of isolation that Ivy did. Hannah will be able to travel freely to the Philippines. She can expect fair wages. If she feels unsafe, she can turn to law enforcement. Thanks to the years her mother endured feeling “like nothing,” Hannah will be treated like she is somebody.
Sociologist Joanna Dreby, who studies the ramifications of illegality on mixed-status Mexican American families in her book Everyday Illegal , identifies the failure of immigration law to recognize the complexity of the lives of immigrants. We are left with an immigration system that prioritizes punishment rather than interrogating long-term resolutions, criminalizes individuals while ignoring the reasons that brought them here in the first place.
The Center for Migration Studies reports that the Trump administration’s promises of mass deportations will harm the economy and destabilize communities . In a campaign speech in Phoenix, Donald Trump said that “the central issue is not the needs of the 11 million illegal immigrants—or however many there may be . . . There is only one core issue in the immigration debate and it is this: the well-being of the American people. Nothing even comes a close second.” The glib simplicity with which Trump presents these arguments is both harmful and deceptive. There is not “one core issue” in immigration, but many challenging and intersecting ones that powerfully affect human lives.
A discourse that commodifies and dehumanizes immigrants leads to the laziest of non-solutions and does nothing to advance humane policy. If we acknowledge America’s complicity in migration and imperialism and interrogate the impact of our country’s policies and actions on real people’s lives, it may yet be possible to create lasting solutions and reforms. No matter what we do, millions of undocumented people will remain—hiding and hiding in the shadow of our nation’s collective, willful ignorance.