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Filipino-Americans Play Vital Role in the Immigration Reform Movement

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Activists from Gabriela Network, a Filipino-American women’s organization with local groups across the country, which recently relaunched as Association of Filipinas and Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalisation, and Marginalization.

CREDIT: Gabriela Network

As long as Anang Palomar could remember during the time she was growing up in the Philippines, her dad lived abroad. He left in the 1970s for the same reasons that about 3,000 people (PDF) leave the country each day: To find work that will support his family. Her dad lived in the United States, where he worked as a doorman in New York City.

Up until she was 17, Palomar saw her dad for a few weeks each year, around Christmastime, and talked to him on the phone every Sunday. He would always say just three things: “Are you OK?” “Do you need anything?” and “Be good at school.”

When Palomar had finished high school  and was in her second year at college in the Philippines, her dad petitioned for her to live with him in the United States. He had citizenship through his mother, who came to the States as a nurse in the '70s, and was able to petition for Palomar's citizenship. In November 2003, she left for the United States to get green cards. Her mom had come to the United States in 2002 and her sister arrived in 2005.*

Her move to the United States was a challenging time for Palomar. She struggled with the language, and lived with a father she barely knew. “Family separation is very difficult for immigrant kids, and their parents,” she says. For so long, the only relationship she'd had with her father was over the phone, but moving to the United States didn't necessarily fix that. Because her parents* worked at night, Palomar barely saw her father. Things remained distant between them. “I try to understand why all this is happening, why our relationship is like this,” Palomar says. “Because we don’t have a choice. He doesn’t have a choice. There’s no work in the Philippines.”

Palomar quickly learned that she was lucky because she had a green card and could get citizenship status. Most of the friends she made at LaGuardia College in the mid-2000s were undocumented. Because they counted as international students, they had to pay up to twice the tuition fee of a local student—even many of them had been in the U.S. for most of their lives. In 2010, local full-time students pay $1,575 per semester, while foreign full-time students pay $2,520 to $3,780 per semester.

To afford the higher cost of education, her friends often had to work second and third jobs under the table: Babysitting or working without contract at restaurants and bars. A lot of Palomar's friends struggled with depression, drank heavily, and some dropped out of college.

When the realities of migration made it hard to feel at home, Palomar decided to get involved with a group called Ugnayan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Linking the Children of the Motherland, or “Ugnayan” for short), a community for Filipino youth in New York and New Jersey. Palomar got into organizing to find people struggling with similar issues, and found a group that’s pushing back against prevailing attitudes from the rest of society about who deserves to be an American.

Filipinos in America

Palomar's struggle as someone living between the Filipino world and her new home in America is common. As Filipino-American activist and writer Ninotchka Rosca put it to me in an interview for Maisonneuve magazine earlier this summer, immigrants come to America to find a home, to build a life with their families, to be accepted as part of a community, to contribute to American society, and to find meaningful and fulfilling work—in short, the same things everyone in America wants.

And the reasons that they can’t do all this back in the Philippines—rampant poverty, a broken economy, and an entrenched oligarchy that controls most of the country’s wealth and makes it difficult to root out corruption in government—are intimately connected to U.S. actions over the past few centuries.

According to 2000 census data, there are 2.3 million Filipinos living in the United States and that number is only estimated to go up once the 2010 census is completed (PDF). As of January 2009, migrants from the Philippines made up the 5th largest group of undocumented immigrants into the United States, after migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (PDF).

Though this community gets little coverage in the mainstream media, young Filipino activists are a driving force in a vibrant, vital community that's both building alliances across oceans and building understanding that crosses ethnic lines in their neighborhoods. Filipino-American activists are pushing back against the popular narrative about immigrants in the United States and expanding on the stereotype that suggests all immigrant-rights activists are Latino.

In fact, Filipinos are an important segment of modern United States immigration history. As Yen Le Espiritu writes in Home Bound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Countries:

Filipinos went to the United States because America went first to the Philippines. In other words, Filipino migration to the United States must be understood within the context of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and in Asia. In 1898, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the United States brutally took possession of the Philippines over native opposition and uprising, hereby extending its ‘Manifest Destiny’ [the doctrine that motivated America’s westward expansion and expulsion of Native Americans] to Pacific Asia. The often-ignored Philippine-American War (1899-1902) resulted in the death of about a million Filipinos, the violent destruction of the nationalist forces, and the U.S. territorial annexation of the Philippines—ostensibly to prepare the archipelago for eventual independence.

When the United States occupied the Philippines, it was the first time that a former colony was taking its own colonies abroad. Some, like the late historian Richard Hofstadter, argue it marked the beginning of an age of being an international imperial superpower that we’re still living with today. (The first recorded American use of waterboarding was in the Filipino-American war.)

The United States cast its colonization of the Philippines as a benevolent one and set a course for eventual independence, but before the United States left, it reconfigured the structure of the country so that it would continue to benefit from the Philippines’ resources without having to maintain it as an official colony. The United States remolded the Philippine economy, changed its political culture, and set up treaties that exercised great U.S. influence over the Philippines' economic development, even today.

“By its tariff regulations and the subsequent ‘free trade’ between the two countries,” Espiritu writes, “the United States fostered this export-import policy and kept the Philippines an unindustrialized export economy—a condition that depleted the country’s economic resources and propelled the eventual migration of many Filipinos.”

Today the Philippine economy is propped up significantly by money sent home by workers that left to earn livings abroad, money that makes up at least 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. As Yves Nibungco, Chairperson of the New York/New Jersey branches of Anakbayan, an international Filipino youth organization, puts it, “Our government is basically the biggest recruitment agency for first world countries, a supplier of cheap labor.” Though the Philippine government has embraced the situation and contributes to it by recruiting workers to go abroad, when people migrate, they’re still living with the legacy of U.S. actions.

Fitting Filipinos into the immigration picture

But America’s self-image doesn’t really account for these things, particularly when discussions about our immigration system come up, and few learn about these things in school. Even though Katie Joaquin, Chair of Anakbayan in the Bay Area, was born in the Philippines* and came to the United States when she was 3, she had a lot of unanswered questions when she got to college that led her to seek out community groups. “I was hungry for that explanation of how the world worked. Why are Filipinos in the U.S.? … One thing that draws people to Anakbayan is this vacuum around our cultural history but also around genuine history in general—how the world works and how it got this way.”

In public discussions of immigration, there’s no sense of the conditions that motivate people to come here, and what they actually want to accomplish after they’ve arrived. When South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham argued for scrapping the 14th Amendment so that immigrants can’t come here and deviously drop “anchor babies” to stay here, for example, there was no mention of the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating the conditions that lead to migration.

"I think what the conservatives don't understand is that the economic machine, the corporations that rob countries of their resources and dump their surplus into their countries, is what forces people to have to move here in the first place," says Jollene Levid, Secretary General of Gabriela Network, a Filipino-American women’s organization with local groups across the country. "The root is missing in their analysis of this whole anchor-baby phenomenon."

Starting with education, building connections

Because of these widespread misconceptions, educational initiatives are a big part of Filipino-American groups’ activities from coast to coast. A lot of young people join such groups because the things they learn at school and on the news don’t give them a lot of material to contextualize everyday parts of the immigrant experience—whether it's their parents having difficulty finding jobs that match their credentials from the Philippines, being made to feel ashamed about having an accent, or dealing with the increasingly widespread attitude that immigrants are criminals who are ‘mooching off the system.’

"They want more of an explanation of their world and their place in it, that they don't learn from school or the media here," says Joaquin. "This history we're learning doesn't feel complete. We don't hear about the ways the U.S. is really contributing to migration."

On both coasts, these groups have been rallying around the most vulnerable members of the communities: The undocumented and domestic workers, who often live in their employers’ homes, work long hours for little pay, and are vulnerable to abuse. In Alameda, Calif., Anakbayan opposed ICE raids that target Filipino domestic workers, and in New York, Ugnayan was behind a push for the recently passed domestic workers’ bill of rights. Some of these groups are organizing documentary projects and events for members to share their stories of migration, to cut through that vacuum of information about their status as immigrants in the United States.

But the chief moment of electrified activism came this summer when Arizona passed SB 1070, an immigration law that would require anyone who looks like they could potentially be an undocumented immigrant—read: anyone who's not white—to produce their papers to law enforcement at any time and for any reason.

The law galvanized the Filipino-American groups and created a new wave of alliance among immigrant rights groups, including Filipino-American groups partnering with Latino groups. They quickly realized that they share a lot of the same issues. Filipino youth activist groups across the country began mobilizing around SB 1070, sending delegations to Arizona to march alongside Latino groups, organizing rallies against similar bills in other states, linking up with immigrant rights groups abroad, and forming alliances across ethnic lines in their neighborhoods.

Anakbayan has been linking up with Latino groups who also experience family separation, like Anang Palomar did. “We’re a community that’s torn apart by work,” Joaquin says. “We have to be side by side with our Latino brothers and sisters.”

Filipino-American groups work in women's issues and globalization

But though SB 1070 has helped build alliances, other Filipino-American activists have been working on other issues. For the past 20 years, Gabriela Network has focused on the ways Filipino women are affected by globalization. Poverty in the Philippines leads thousands of women each year into sex work abroad, or taking low-paid jobs as nannies, caregivers, and cleaning personnel—professions that are under compensated in part because of their reputation as ‘women’s work.’

Their experience is shared by women around the world, and GabNet organizers realized this year that they need to expand their focus. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women:

Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty. Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Poverty implications are widespread for women, leaving many without even basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment. Being poor can also mean they have little protection from violence and have no role in decision making.

On Oct. 2, Gabriela Network relaunched as the Association of Filipinas and Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalisation, and Marginalization (AF3IRM) to focus on how globalization affects women across ethnic lines.

Anakbayan’s U.S. chapters are also forming alliances with immigrant rights groups abroad to send a message to world leaders to address the economic policies that contribute to international migration. When leaders of UN member states meet in Mexico for the Global Forum on Migration and Development this November, where they’ll discuss remittances from offshore foreign workers as a model of development for poor countries, immigrant rights groups will hold a counter-summit: the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees.

Passing it on to the next generation

Today, at age 24, Anang Palomar is glad she connected to Uganyan, which doing research on the barriers undocumented students face in the U.S. education system, like the ones Palomar's friends encountered when they were in school.

She volunteers as a community organizer in the hours outside of her 9-to-5 accounting job and works on organizing workshops at different colleges in the New York area to help undocumented youth know their rights within the U.S. education system. Palomar's also taking classes on labor organizing at Queens College. She's organizing sessions on Filipino history for kids in high schools, building bridges between first and second generation immigrant kids. Her work helps them understand their history of migration and give them background on some of the struggles they face in the States, from systemic barriers related to their citizenship status to workplace discrimination.

In her own small way, Palomar does all this because she hopes she can make a difference. She hopes her work helps immigrant youth realize they have a lot to contribute here, regardless of immigration status. Palomar and the kids she works with bring a more accurate view of America as it exists in the world—and they're well positioned to suggest improvements.

*This story has been edited from the original. The story originally said Palomar's sister arrived with her in 2003 and her mother stayed behind, that she had only completed high school when she came over to the United States, and that only her father worked nights. This article also originally stated that Katie Joaquin was born and raised in the United States. We regret the errors. 

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