by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
BAY FAIR, CALIFORNIA, U.S.A.–OUTSIDE THE five-car intercity train streaks of images rush as white as Rodrigo’s streaks of hair, the flecks of paint on his denim, rubber shoes, and fingers, and the future awaiting undocumented migrant Filipinos like him here.
“I’m getting homesick! Let them know I’m a ‘TNT’,” he blurts out in Tagalog, his native tongue. TNT is migrant-speak for undocumented foreigners hiding from immigration authorities.
A few eyes darted his way but went easily back to the images outside the train of the Bay Area Rapid transport system.
The scant attention Rodrigo got may mean some passengers think this man’s gone haywire, what with the tension gripping foreign workers in the United States on new immigration laws and policies.
This side of California offered the street for rallies of advocates seeking greater leniency in dealing with illegal immigrants like Rodrigo.
It can’t help it: California historically embraced migrants like a venus flytrap. But with the US economy sagging under the weight of war spending, conservatives are pointing to an easy scapegoat: illegal immigrants.
Federal government statistics estimated 210,000 Filipino undocumented migrants were in the US last year.
However, with a systematic network of support, outside the more than 2.5 million Filipinos temporarily or permanently working and living in this land of the free, the number of TNTs may go higher than government estimates.
The whole state has maintained the invisible umbilical cord for most Filipinos. Their creativity to land American soil amid strict immigration processes matches the Mexicans’ ability to defy border restrictions.
The motivation is high. At home, it’s poverty and the lack of opportunities for hitching on the upper social strata.
For Rodrigo, it is both.
With a degree in civil engineering from a Philippine university, he could work here only as a handyman, doing paint jobs for a living. But because the latter career has been lucrative with the early and middle years of a real estate boom in the US, Rodrigo could send a thousand dollars (P47,000) every month to his family in the Philippines.
He could even send US$4,000 (P188,000 at US$1=P47) every mid-year to fund his five children’s schooling.
“Maybe that’s why they call people like me ‘heroes’,” Rodrigo said as he got out of the 24th Street Mission station: “We do everything possible to keep our families happy.”
Husband and wife Tony and Elenita Manuel [Editor’s note: because of their status, some Filipinos agreed to be interviewed only if we protect their identities.] disagrees.
Both are also “out of status“ in the US and yet they could still send US$1,000 every month to siblings and nieces from both sides of their families.
Manuel said that just because he and his wife could afford sending money to make sure their younger relatives go to good schools in the Philippines, they couldn’t be considered heroes.
“I still don’t want to be called a hero just because of that,” Tony demurs.
THE MONEY that Rodrigo and the Manuel couple send back home are part of the US$10-billion average annual remittance that she and millions of Filipinos send from more than 190 countries.
This cash hoard hasn’t only bloated the purse of families here to spend on basic needs like food but also for luxury items like cars and investments in real estate as well as small- and micro-businesses.
This cash flow, according to economists and analysts, has saved the country from several financial shocks since 1986.
“I don’t know if overseas Filipinos think of themselves [as heroes] in the literal sense,” University of the Philippines anthropologist Michael Tan said.
“But they certainly know how important their migration is for their families, and maybe to some extent, for the national economy,” he added.
To note, they could still send money back home, despite their “illegal” status.
Add those who work based on a contract, Arnold Reyes explains.
“They [overseas Filipino workers or OFWs] remit almost all of their earnings, while we [immigrants] only send some money to show to relatives we are still important,” said Arnold Reyes, a physical therapist from Ventura County, California.
But Elenita Manuel, a dental assistant here, says using self-importance as reason makes them less qualified as “heroes”.
When I send money home it’s because my nieces need it and not because I want them to make me feel I’m still important, husband Tony said.
“Good thing we haven’t been caught,” he added of their “illegal” status.
Good thing, too, they have each other to support on, they add, compared to Rodrigo who points to his immigration status as one of the reasons for missing the Philippines.
“I’m a hero to my family,” he says to no one in particular.
After a beat, he turns his head to this author and repeats the words.
FOR ALBERTO Oliveros, family members absent from his daily life compel him to work for 12 to 16 hours a day five days a week.
Oliveros, who works at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, says he needs the money to send to his mother in Hong Kong and to siblings and relatives in his hometown of San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte.
When told the time, Oliveros jumped off the sofa where he dozed off, splashed water on his face, and hand-combed his black hair.
“I have to work from 11 p.m. ’til tomorrow. That’s an extra US$50 an hour,” he said while smoothing the green nurse’s polo he just donned before catching a nap.
“It’s a waste to miss overtime,” he said before closing the door to the apartment he temporarily shared with this author.
Filipinos here tend to work very hard, Oliveros’s former colleague Arnold Reyes [not his real name] says.
“Filipinos here in the US want a secure future, and then enjoy [the fruits of their labor when they retire],” he added. He says a six-day work week of a dozen hours a day is normal.
For Oliveros, going through this grueling schedule is also because of a US$5,000-monthly mortgage payment on the new house he bought. For Arnold, it’s for the mortgage on his US$60,000 BMW.
Working abroad is the one decision I haven’t regretted, San Jose, California-based Consuelo Dacanay says.
Dacanay works in the airport to screen passengers going through x-ray machines and body scanning equipment.
She waves a two-kilogram two-feet black wand from just below the armpit to the waist of an estimated 60 passengers every hour.
She’s paid US$9 an hour for a 48-hour workweek.
“If somebody there [in the Philippines] would have a chance to go abroad, here especially, they should; I won’t stop them. I’d even goad them,” Dacanay said during her 15-minute break.
The former schoolteacher adds: “second-raters will be left (in the Philippines), and there will be no more life back home.”
OFW Journalism Consortium and the Yuchengco Media Fellows Program
University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim