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Topics / Immigration

The Lives Left Behind — and the New Ones Created

Jason DeParle tells the fascinating story of global migration through the tale of one family


Debates on immigration are typically presented from the vantage point of the receiving country. We ask our citizens how they feel about the immigrant and whether they’ve considered the immigrant’s good standing when forming their opinions. We ask whether our nation has the capacity to support immigrants, turning a blind eye to their contributions to key industries and the state’s full coffers. Less often do we ask the immigrant why they have chosen us, as though the answer is all but obvious.

Jason DeParle’s A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves explores immigration from its other ends — through the eyes of emigrants and the forces driving them from home. At the book’s heart is the Comodas family, who hosted DeParle in Manila nearly 30 years ago. Over years of friendship, DeParle bore witness to (and, at times, participated in) their journey out of poverty. It was a journey of love and duty, certainly, but also one of separation, lost time, and heartache.

When DeParle first met the Comodas family in 1987, they were living in Leveriza, a slum district in Manila. His host, Tita Portagana Comodas, was a mother of five and a manager of a dozen co-op stores run by nuns. Her husband, Emet, was an overseas laborer in Saudi Arabia, cleaning pools for 10 times the salary he had been paid in Manila for the same work. They were doing all they could to keep their children fed, in school, and safe.


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A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century

Jason DeParle | Viking. | 2019 | 382 pp. | ISBN 9780670785926 | More about this book


 

The International Labour Organization estimates that there are more than 165 million migrant workers around the world. In 2018, remittances from these immigrants amounted to $689 billion, of which 77 percent, or $529 billion, went to low- and middle-income countries. For many of these countries, remittances far exceed the foreign aid they receive from higher-income nations, making migrant labor one of the most effective forces bringing down global poverty. In countries like the Philippines, where remittances make up 11 percent of gross domestic product, families of migrant workers experience a rise in school attendance and health, as well as a decrease in child labor.

For the Comodas family, Emet’s contract in Saudi Arabia was a lifeline. Before Emet went abroad, Tita’s days began before dusk, when she cooked a meager breakfast of rice and what little else she could afford. Her days ended at midnight, when she washed her kids’ single set of uniforms by hand so that they could wear clean clothes to school. After Emet left for Saudi Arabia, Tita stopped running out of food, bought extra uniforms for her kids, and could treat the toothaches that had plagued her for years.

Unfortunately, the price of this lifeline was steep. Tita had to raise the children by herself for most of the children’s youngest years and for Emet, who had grown up as an orphan, the distance was painful and almost unbearable. The family’s youngest child, at age two, cried when Emet tried to hold him — after all, it was the touch of a stranger. DeParle writes, “[Emet] would flare when he heard critics say that overseas workers deprive their children of love. ‘You cannot look at each other and say it’s love if your stomach is empty — I sacrificed.’”

DeParle’s admiration of his subjects is one of the most striking aspects of the book. “As a reporter in the States, I had tried to understand what kept people from seizing opportunity in a society of plenty. As a reporter in Leveriza, I tried to understand how people seized opportunity where it scarcely existed,” he writes. He reflects on his time in Leveriza as “an encounter with grace,” where he saw families that “faced crushing poverty without being crushed.”

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To be fair, what keeps people from “seizing opportunity” in America is not a lack of perseverance or sense of duty. The United States struggles with a long and ongoing history of marginalizing our most vulnerable members with institutional barriers to prosperity. This includes the predatory housing loans that led to the 2008 housing crash, our ever-growing student debt crisis, the endless attempts to suppress the right to vote in minority communities, and the persistent inaction on immigration policy that leaves immigrant families in fear for their lives and well-being.

In his book, DeParle’s focus is on grit amongst the Filipino poor, rather than the structural impediments to their economic mobility. Take Tess Aliscad, for example: a single mother who forfeited her dream of becoming a nurse to be a nanny for a wealthy American-Australian family. She made the difficult decision to put aside her own aspirations and tend to this family in their foreign homes, leaving her to watch her own children grow up in the Philippines via Skype and social media.

A majority of the providers in DeParle’s book are women like Tess. Unlike Tita, who obtained “a hint of the deference offered to people of means” through her husband’s honorable labor, women migrant workers like Tess are often criticized as bad mothers who neglect their children. Yet, women comprise 75 percent of the Philippines’ overseas workforce, making them the primary driver of development based on migrant labor.

According to an essay published by the Brookings Institution, the impact of immigrant labor on the overall employment levels and wages of most native-born workers is “low.” Moreover, “undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do.”

 

As a migrant nurse, Tita and Emet’s daughter Rosalie, too, struggled with her family obligations and the cultural expectations of a patriarchal society. Working in the Persian Gulf, Rosalie earned a sizable salary, helping her to support immediate and extended families, as well as needy neighbors. Later, after passing a stringent visa application process to work in Galveston, Texas, she also contended with anti-immigrant pushback from Americans who accused her and other immigrants of stealing jobs and being insufficiently qualified to be a nurse.

According to an essay published by the Brookings Institution, the impact of immigrant labor on the overall employment levels and wages of most native-born workers is “low.” Moreover, “undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do.” Foreign-born workers make up 17.4 percent of the United States’ workforce, often filling critical gaps in key sectors, not only in the agriculture and service industries, but also in so-called “high-skilled” labor markets requiring advanced degrees.

In Galveston, Rosalie and her immigrant peers were filling a nursing staff shortage that had followed a major hurricane with “Katrina-like consequences” in 2008. Hundreds of American nurses had left the area due to hospitals being closed for extended periods. Many others were lured away by higher-paying hospitals in nearby cities, such as Houston.

Some patients were initially skeptical of the influx of immigrant staff, but the hospital understood that nurses like Rosalie were godsends. With time, the patients warmed to Rosalie and her peers too. DeParle quotes Jeanette Dotson, a former patient of Rosalie’s, saying, “You can tell that she really loves to take care of people. It wasn’t like ‘this is just my job.’ She let me know she’d pray for me. There was just something about her that was very special.”

Today, immigration is a thorny political issue around the globe, with various parties eager to debate terms of entry and removal for immigrants. While countries are within their right to review the impact of having immigrants within their borders, we should not forget that immigration is, at its core, a personal story driven by the emigrant’s own circumstances and needs.

There are 45 million immigrants in the United States, and they comprise 13.7 percent of the country’s total population. Each one has their own migration story, but their lives are more than their history with this country. When we reduce immigrants to statistics and visa classifications, we erase from our minds the families they are trying to protect and the lives that they have left behind.