Shadowy trails: Stories of the undocumented

By CHER S. JIMENEZ – abs-cbn news online
SAN FRANCISCO—His voice reverberates in a downtown San Francisco train station as passersby, residents and visitors make their way to the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART), the city’s main subway system.

Train-goers from all over the world hear exceptional music as Ruben Kalinga sings Tagalog songs from way back. Many Filipino commuters and foreign travelers drop coins and sometimes one-dollar bills into the neon-green plastic box Kalinga has kept for months, ever since he decided to pursue a long-time dream.

With a guitar and a harmonica, Kalinga sings rock ’n’ roll and occasionally sits down to croon country and folk songs, to the delight of his Western audience.

The 50-year-old former merchant seaman is no stranger at BART stations. Every day, he lugs his musical instruments and performs for hours, most of the time without food, unless he decides to take a short break.

But unlike other Filipinos who are illegally staying in the United States, Kalinga is not in hiding. In fact, despite his illegal status, he exposes himself by performing almost daily in parts of San Francisco where police, tourists and locals go by. He also insists his real name be mentioned in this story.

“They know who are illegal here, but I’m not afraid. I know they won’t deport me. You can’t call me TNT [for the Tagalog tago nang tago, or ‘always in hiding’] because I’m not hiding,” he says with confidence.

Kalinga can afford to be nonchalant. San Francisco is one of few US cities that have remained friendly to undocumented immigrants like him. In an immigrant-rights summit in September, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised that despite a crackdown by the Bush administration, San Francisco would continue to be a “sanctuary” for undocumented foreign workers.

Eleven years ago, Kalinga, a father of six, took a chance to attain the American dream. When his oil tanker docked in Los Angeles, he skipped out. Pretending to be mentally challenged, Kalinga was able to pass through security check.

This attempt to sneak into the United States was his second, and it was successful. In 1993 the ex-seafarer had been deported to the Philippines when immigration officials caught him in El Paso, Texas, shortly after failing to return to his ship, which was docked in Florida.

Philippine authorities have lost count of how many Filipino seamen have “jumped ship” while abroad, especially in places like North America and Europe.

Finding ways

The Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) says illegal immigration has acquired many facets as more Filipinos scramble for jobs abroad. An estimated one million Filipinos are living as illegal immigrants in more than 100 countries around the globe.

A study by the Scalabrini Migration Center, a Manila-based nonprofit research institute, states that not all undocumented overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) travel on fake passports or visas, which was the practice many years ago. Many have taken more dangerous paths, taking a chance that their bold move would lift their families back home out of poverty.

Many illegal immigrants, such as Anita and Jerome Gonzales (not their real names), went through legal procedures when they entered the US as tourists in 2001. Anita was a teacher by profession and Jerome a veterinarian, but in New Hampshire, which became their home for six years, husband and wife worked as caregiver and farm attendant. Perennial financial hardship was the impetus for the Gonzales couple to quit their jobs, leave their three young boys and try their luck abroad.

The Filipino diaspora has remained a robust phenomenon despite the continued strong performance of the Philippine peso and a steady decline in unemployment. From 11.70 percent in 2005, the unemployment rate in the Philippines has declined to 7.9 percent in 2007.

A report by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration shows that with already 725,999 OFWs sent abroad as of August, the government could exceed its deployment goal of one million for 2007. Eight million, or a tenth of the Filipino population, are scattered in more than 190 destinations worldwide.

Institutions like the World Health Organization warn of a brain drain, but many Filipinos continue to defy immigration laws for the sake of their family’s survival.

Amanda Javier (not her real name) did just that when she used her perks as a travel agent to fly to Paris more than 10 years ago. For almost a year, the 41-year-old mother of three took housekeeping jobs in French households, a far cry from her executive position in a travel company.

Prompted by her family, which feared for her safety, Javier returned to the Philippines and worked for another travel firm. But the dream of a stable future for her children again drove her to consider working abroad even if it meant taking another risk. In 2001 Javier used her single-entry visa to the US, where she now works as a caregiver by day and a waitress by night.

Despite working two jobs, sending three kids to school requires more earnings, and better-paying jobs require a legal status. Javier convinced a long-time Filipino-American friend she had met in a bar to marry her for a fee.

Peculiar arrangement

This peculiar arrangement, widely known among Filipinos in America, is deemed the last resort of those wanting to legalize their status. The going rate is $10,000 to $30,000, enough to buy a brand-new car.

“Danny,” who tends a small store his mother owns in San Francisco, has been approached many times by a man who offered him money in exchange for marrying an undocumented Filipina.

“I get a lot of those proposals, but I’m not interested. If I marry, that will be for real and not arranged,” he asserts. He adds that “payments” may go higher depending on how many dependents the immigrant has in the Philippines, because it is presumed that they, too, will be petitioned to the United States.

In Javier’s case, her friend agreed to the arrangement “after three years of convincing.” Her husband, who was left to care for their children in the Philippines, agreed to sign their divorce papers so she could remarry in the US. His approval came with a stern condition: that his wife’s second marriage would be on paper only.

The US government knows of this practice and has put strict measures to detect bogus marriages. One of the procedures includes a series of interviews by an immigration psychologist, who probes the couple to see if their answers match on personal matters such as the color of each other’s underwear.

“We’re prepared for that, that’s why I bought him only one color. I got him gray briefs,” Javier says, chuckling.

Marianito Roque, OWWA administrator, notes that OFWs have developed different ways of seeking jobs abroad even if these pose risks to their own safety. Unscrupulous manpower agencies and individual recruiters use their situation to make more money.

Because of the nature of their deployment, many undocumented OFWs do not undergo a predeparture orientation seminar, which provides information such as the culture and laws in host countries. The major source of information for unauthorized immigrants are the agents and the recruitment firms responsible for their deployment, said the Scalabrini study.

Sad but true stories

With Filipino women pitching in for their families, there has been a “feminization” of labor immigration from the Philippines. Ten percent of the country’s yearly labor deployments are domestic helpers bound mainly for the Middle East. Many of them tell stories of abuse both from their recruiters and employers.

Nelly Martinez (not her real name) was recruited by a certain Tessie Guimarao from Davao City in 2002. Guimarao promised Martinez a job as a receptionist in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A certain Lucy Padilla instead sold Nelly into prostitution.

Padilla made thousands of dirhams by offering Martinez to an Arab customer who was willing to shell out big bucks for a virgin woman. A doctor checked Martinez twice to confirm that she had yet to lose her virginity.

In her sworn affidavit before the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the19-year-old woman said Padilla sold her for 6,000 dirhams ($1,630) to a Palestinian customer who raped her inside the house of another Filipina.

Martinez’s client also paid her 3,000 dirhams and offered to take care of her and her family.

“He drove me to Lucy’s house, and while inside the car, he asked me if I wanted him to be my boyfriend. He said he would also send money to my family. I refused the offer, I know he will just use me whenever he wants,” Martinez wrote in her affidavit after escaping from her abusive recruiter.

Martinez returned home with the help of the Philippine Embassy, and so did Padilla, after she was arrested. The UAE authorities refused to keep Padilla in jail and instead sent her back to the Philippines. While prostitution is alive and thriving in that part of the Gulf region, governments are not taking its existence seriously.

Reports of sexual abuses of Filipino women, especially in the Middle East, have become common, but little is being done by both the Philippine government and receiving countries to prevent them.

The dangers are worse among unauthorized immigrants. Eighty percent of the more than 5,000 domestic helpers who were repatriated to the Philippines during Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 claimed to have been victims of physical and psychological abuse. A great number of them were illegal workers, according to the OWWA.

In a report by the OWWA to Vice President Noli de Castro during the second quarter of 2007, Roque identified Damascus (Syria), Amman (Jordan), Kuwait, Kish Island (Iran) and Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) as “extreme human-trafficking areas” for Filipinos.

Iraq, however, was not named as a trafficking area, although nearly half of the more than 7,000 Filipinos there are undocumented. Critics say the Philippine government, which is supportive of the US war in Iraq, is not seriously committed to stopping the hiring of OFWs by American facilities in Baghdad. This support was also demonstrated in 2002 when about 300 Filipino construction workers were immediately whisked to Guantánamo, Cuba, to build detention cells for captured Taliban fighters.

Network of leeches

Filipinos working at Camp Anaconda in Iraq had defied a deployment ban and now face security risks. In May 2007 the Department of Foreign Affairs renewed its call for OFWs in Iraq to seek the help of the nearest Philippine labor office if they needed assistance to come home. The department promised they would not be prosecuted and “everything is forgiven.” The advice came following the death of a Filipino worker in a rocket attack in Baghdad’s US-controlled Green Zone.

Thirteen Filipinos have been killed in Iraq since 2004, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web-based service that monitors war-related deaths. But despite the three-year-old deployment ban, Filipinos continue to pour into Iraq, using Dubai as a transit point.

A licensed recruitment firm hired Andres Jose (not his real name) to work as a warehouseman for the Dubai-based Prime Projects International, a subcontractor of US military contractor Halliburton.

“The recruitment agency in the Philippines arranged my visa for Dubai. From there, I was able to get through Iraq,” confesses Jose. He adds that while he wants to, he cannot go back home for a vacation because he had violated the deployment ban.

“Because of that stupid ban, I couldn’t come home and see my family.

Our employer is also using this ban as an excuse not to pay for our visa and a return ticket to Dubai if we wish to come back to Iraq,” he fumes.

Others, such as Peter Noble and Jun Santillan, who also work in a US-run facility in Iraq, chose to pay their way to get a reprieve from the 12-hour daily work schedule they endured for years without seeing their families. They felt that the occasional telephone calls and chats on the Internet were not enough to relieve their stress and homesickness. They are also prevented from leaving the camp because of security threats.

Santillan shelled out P75,000 to return to Iraq after a brief vacation in the Philippines. Someone working at the Philippine foreign affairs department asked him to pay P13,000 so that the “not valid for travel to Iraq” would not be stamped on his passport. In Dubai, a Filipina known only as “Mommy” arranged for his visa and plane ticket to the UAE and his transit flight to Iraq. “Mommy’s” contact in the Philippines escorted Santillan through the airport immigration check.

From cunning agents who victimize rural prospects to shady immigration officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, the network of leeches that bleed OFW victims dry is extensive.

Philippine officials are well aware of this “guided” departure of unauthorized Filipino immigrants, but have not launched a serious effort to stop it. The anti-illegal recruitment task force previously formed by President Arroyo did little to prosecute those responsible for these unlawful acts. The task force died a natural death as its head, a former police officer, was recently convicted of killing fellow law officers in a drug operation.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no stopping more Filipinos from joining the diaspora despite the personal risks involved. “I would do anything for my family. I’m willing to go through anything to give my kids a better future,” says Javier, a mother of three.

Find more like this: Immigration


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