Migration and the Remains of US Empire

The way we talk about history matters. And this is especially true in the case of the Philippines, which, in many ways, served as a laboratory for America’s imperial ...

The way we talk about history matters. And this is especially true in the case of the Philippines, which, in many ways, served as a laboratory for America’s imperial ambitions. Having seized the Philippines from Spain at the end of the 19th century, the United States waged a ruthless war of counterinsurgency against the Filipinos, who demanded national independence after centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

The subjugation of the Philippines foreshadowed the many ways in which the US would expand its geopolitical influence around the world over the next century and into the present day. Most importantly, the US left a deep sociopolitical imprint on Philippine society, shaping the lives of both Filipinos living in the archipelago and those who immigrated to the US.

It is this story of migration—specifically, Filipinos immigrating to the US and seeking a piece of the American Dream—that concerns Jason DeParle in his new book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, which tracks the global migration journey of one Filipino family across three generations.

What does not concern DeParle is the larger political backdrop of the story he tells; in particular, the ways in which the wealth in the US and the poverty in the Philippines are actually mutually constitutive. In glossing over the imperial dynamics that undergird US–Philippine relations, DeParle unintentionally launders the dirty history of US empire—a political formation that still stains the fabric of Philippine society.

Rather than rehashing tired and teleological narratives of immigrants and the American Dream, the book might have more usefully paid attention to how the US subjugated the Philippines for the last 120-plus years. Adopting empire as a central analytical frame allows us to see the past and present as intertwined; such a view recognizes international labor migration as a product of asymmetrical geopolitical configurations rooted in resource extraction (including labor power) and unequal exchange.

An empire-centered approach, moreover, allows us to understand how the projection of US power abroad has shaped post–World War II migration flows. US geopolitical entanglements in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, Haiti, and Central America have destabilized these regions, just as the Philippines was destabilized. These disruptions have fostered surges in cross-border traffic from these regions to the US, which, once set into motion, are difficult to contain.

Ultimately, the book’s inattention to the legacies of colonialism and its attendant racial hierarchies leads to its most critical flaw: a misreading of the recent resurgence of nativist politics in the US.

DeParle suggests that the current nativist climate is largely a response to the problem of “illegal immigration.” He declares that “a government’s failure to control its borders erodes faith in government itself,” making disgruntled citizens more receptive to nativist messaging. But DeParle’s puzzling interpretation of the immigration debate today—that desperate immigrants share the blame for rising xenophobia and violence—is all the more egregious because it’s based on a profound misunderstanding. The long entanglement of the Philippines and the US, the focus of his new book, reveals just how much the asymmetrical relations between the two nations continues to impact the lives of Filipinos at home and abroad.

When my grandfather migrated from the Philippines to the US, in 1927, he encountered a country different from the one he had read about in American textbooks assigned in the Philippine colonial school he attended as a youth. Like many immigrants, he found a jarring disconnect between the rhetoric of American freedom and opportunity and the lived reality on the ground.

In the 1920s, nativist agitation in the US reached its apex, culminating in the passage of the infamous 1924 Immigration Act. Filipinos, however, were exempted from the act’s restrictive quotas, because they were US colonial subjects and could, consequently, traverse the territorial borders of American empire without limits.1

Nativists, who had worked for decades to close the nation’s borders to “undesirable” populations, were livid about the “special treatment” afforded to Filipinos. They lobbied the federal government to bar Filipinos’ entry, despite their status as American nationals. Paradoxically, these efforts initially stalled, largely because US officials feared that excluding colonial subjects living under the American flag would generate diplomatic blowback and diminish the US’s standing vis-à-vis other imperial powers.

An unintended consequence of the US annexation of the Philippines was that, for a time, it allowed Filipinos (and other US nationals, like Puerto Ricans and Guamanians) a right to immigrate to the United States, even while other “foreign” people could not.

Frustrated by the federal government’s inaction, US residents—particularly of West Coast communities—took the law into their own hands, launching a wave of race riots and vigilante campaigns aimed at driving Filipino immigrants out of the country. One of the first riots occurred on the Yakama Indian Reservation, in Washington State, where my grandfather and other Filipinos had been recruited to work in the region’s booming agricultural industry.

The violence targeting Filipinos was fueled by moral panics, which depicted them as prone to criminality, sexual impropriety with white women, and radical labor politics. Anti-Filipino violence quickly spread throughout the region. Local white residents claimed they were acting in self-defense, against a population who brazenly defied the patchwork system of racial, class, and gender boundaries that both naturalized and sustained the established social order.

The proliferation of anti-Filipino agitation (both legal and extralegal) soon attracted national media attention, and, ironically, nativist leaders cited the very racial violence that they fomented as a reason to prohibit Filipino immigration to the US. Specifically, they suggested that the newcomers had invited the bloodshed by flouting customary racial boundaries in American society.2

DeParle’s inattention to the legacies of colonialism and its attendant racial hierarchies leads to his book’s most critical flaw: a misreading of the recent resurgence of nativist politics in the U.S.

Nativists got their wish in 1934. Desiring to keep Filipinos out, they cannily shifted strategy, joining a coalition of interest groups pressuring Congress to do the next best thing: grant the Philippines its independence after a 10-year probationary period. This action would strip Filipinos of their special status as US nationals and make them subject to exclusionary immigration quotas.

Echoes of these ugly nativist campaigns are back in vogue, as well-armed citizen’s patrols and opportunistic political officials amplified the alleged threat posed by the latest incarnation of the immigrant menace. The resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment, moreover, reveals a troubling continuity between past and present, as the US border remains forever a locus of violent contraction and expansion.

As might be imagined, the formal withdrawal of US sovereignty over the Philippines, in 1946, did not end the imperial relationship between the two nations, any more than the passage of civil rights laws in the US in the 1960s ended racial segregation and disenfranchisement. The deep-rooted systems of domination and subordination—which serve as the lifeblood of colonialism and white supremacy—did not simply fade away because of legislative intervention.

Instead, they evolved and took on new, more insidious forms. The US maintained a domineering presence in the archipelago, exercising tremendous economic influence as well as maintaining military bases to bolster the Philippines’s role as a strategic bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia.

And yet, while Filipino immigration to the US slowed during the 1950s and 1960s, it did not stop. New streams of Filipino immigration that commenced after World War II (e.g., nurses and military migrants) can be directly traced to US colonial policies in the Philippines. In some sense, no facet of the story of the Philippines—either at home or in the diaspora—can be told without acknowledging the pervasive, often corrosive effects of US entanglement in the islands.

Nevertheless, in DeParle, we find someone who is ready and willing to tell the Philippines’ story without engaging with the legacies and realities of US empire. And so, having worked on the topic of Filipino immigration for nearly two decades, I have been intrigued by the media blitz surrounding A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves.

Well-placed reviews and/or book excerpts in leading media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, Boston Globe, as well as a string of high-profile media appearances by the author, attest to the promotional power of the literary industrial complex (Penguin Random House, in this case). This level of publicity is perhaps to be expected; Mr. DeParle is a well-regarded reporter for the New York Times and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The marketing of this book as an authoritative, even seminal, source about the central role of the Philippines in the global circulation of immigrant labor is also revealing in other ways. The endorsements on the book jacket are a veritable who’s who of public intellectuals, except that none are experts on the Philippines or Filipino migration (only one of the five blurbers writes about international immigration). This is important, because the long and complicated relationship between the Philippines and the US demands attention to the unique sociohistorical forces that have shaped immigration between them.

The endorsers share something else in common that is perhaps too obvious to mention; suffice it to say that the decision to not include an endorsement from somebody from the large community of Filipino writers who work on this topic seems like a deliberate strategy rather than an unintentional oversight.

This is not to suggest that being a member of a particular community gives one a proprietary claim over studying that group. At the same time, it is fair to ask why some voices are granted such a disproportionate amount of recognition and public validation while the intellectual labor of minority writers, whose work on this topic is of equal quality, is relegated to the margins of public debates.

Authorship, like colonialism, is bound up in questions of discovery, power, and ownership. Assessing how and why certain voices or frameworks are elevated and others are disregarded reveals the profoundly asymmetric power dynamics that have long characterized Philippine–US relations.


The Banality of Empire

By Katherine J. Anderson

The narrative arc of the book traces the decades-long journey of a Filipino family, which begins in the slums of Manila in the 1980s and ends up in the promised land of the US, where dreams of social mobility and a better life might be actualized.

During this period the Philippines was an independent nation, but remained a stalwart client state of the US, hosting critical military bases that supported American military interests in Southeast Asia. DeParle’s interaction with the Comodas/Villanueva family began when he was a young news reporter writing a story on conditions in Philippine shantytowns (spoiler alert: he discovers the residents are destitute and socially marginalized).

It is here that the journey of the narrator and of those being narrated takes on a familiar shape. DeParle takes up residence in Tita Comodas’s slum abode and ends up becoming a trusted confidant of the family for the next three decades, as the clan enlarges and slowly extends its footprint across the globe via labor migration (to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the US).

Not surprisingly, themes of hard work, sacrifice, and ethnic networks loom large in the story of immigrant success. Such attributes, according to DeParle, are necessary to escape the Philippines, which is depicted as a hothouse of corruption, suffering, and immobility. One is left to wonder why anyone in their right mind would remain in such an undesirable backwater, and those who are left behind are often depicted as hustlers who care primarily about the financial benefits that they receive from their kin working abroad.

When the book’s central character, Rosalie Villanueva, finally lands a job as a nurse in Texas, we begin to see the American Dream narrative come into full focus—a narrative in which a hard-working immigrant and her family interface with the assimilatory power of US institutions, ultimately demonstrating that those who work hard and play by the rules (e.g., via legal immigration) are rewarded with valuable opportunities not available in their country of origin.

The Villanueva’s journey from Third World slum to American suburb will resonate with many readers, because it reinforces a popular narrative that views immigrant success as a matter of personal achievement and bootstrap resilience. Deliverance from poverty is actualized via individual dispensation doled out by affluent liberal democracies that need immigrants, whether they admit it or not.

Tellingly, DeParle downplays the impact of the past, focusing instead on granular accounts of the present. This leaves only a narrow aperture through which to examine the global circulation of migrant labor, one that highlights the role of social networks but is oddly decoupled from the political forces that fuel cross border traffic.

The legacies of colonialism and interventionism (economic, political, military) are referenced in passing but are not central analytical concerns. Philippine leaders like Ferdinand Marcos are criticized for their corruption and misrule, but little attention is given to how the malignant culture of “cacique democracy” in the Philippines is an outgrowth of four centuries of colonial subjugation.3

Empire and migration go together, and the failure to reckon with this unsavory past helps to explain why Western democracies failed to anticipate the resurgence of nativism as an entirely predictable response to contemporary migration patterns. Emigration from colonies to the metropole is one of the more obvious recoil effects of imperial rule.

But we might also think of imperialism—both the direct kind of the early 20th century and the more recent variety wielded via military intervention—as, itself, a form of migration. Imperialism, by its nature, is predicated on the violation of the sovereignty of the territory targeted for control. Importantly, it also involves sustained cross-border movement from metropole to colonial zones, as large numbers of people—military personnel, businessmen, teachers, colonial authorities, and a wide array of civilian support staff—settle into the foreign territory, establishing new cultural routines and institutional practices that leave an imprint on colonial populations that carries over into postcolonial society.

When we reckon with America’s long history of trespassing other nation’s borders without regard for their jurisdictional rights, nativists denouncing immigrants who violate US national sovereignty can come to seem disingenuous. The contemporary GOP’s wielding of “law and order” rhetoric—and their positioning as heroic defenders of US sovereignty and national security—is self-serving political theater.

The distinction between legal and “illegal” immigrants is a canard. President Trump and his allies want to place radical limits on legal immigration and have used executive power to narrow the definition of who falls into this category. The president has infamously remarked that he wants more immigrants from Norway and bemoaned that the current system of legal immigration allows in too many people from “shithole countries.” That these so-called “shitholes” are essentially synonymous with former colonial zones serves as a reminder that empire and migration are interfused and cannot be easily disentangled.

The GOP’s agenda is fairly transparent: they want to reverse engineer the national community by imposing radical cuts in immigrant admissions in a desperate effort to sustain white minority rule.

Advocating for the adoption of more robust immigration policies in the world’s affluent democracies as a means of alleviating global poverty has some merit. We should also ask whether such an approach to deep-rooted global inequalities might actually reproduce the very conditions it seeks to address.

What if poverty and dispossession are a direct inheritance of colonial resource extraction and the export of crony capitalism? Doesn’t this leave residents of the global South beholden to the beneficence of wealthy countries, whose tolerance for immigrants is unpredictable? To what extent does such a strategy reproduce old relations of dependency and patronage that characterized the system of direct colonial rule? These questions cannot be adequately addressed until we reckon with the legacy of empire.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava. icon

  1. On the continuities between US colonial politics past and present, see Cesar Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  2. Rick Baldoz, The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898–1946 (NYU Press, 2011).
  3. Benedict Anderson coined the term “cacique democracy” to describe the particular style of strongman politics and corrupt bossism that has long characterized Philippine politics; see Benedict Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” New Left Review (May–June 1988).
Featured image: Sister Amelia (Philippines, ca. 1950s). Source: chotda / Flickr