We know only too well what it means to have an undocumented relative living abroad. A parent dies and one of the children could not be at the funeral. An explanation, about invalid papers, is offered in hushed tones: “Hindi pa ayos ang papeles.” Or, we ask why someone very bright, with a college degree from a top university, could get only low-paying menial jobs after so many years living in the United States. And again, we are told:  “Wala pa kasing papeles.”

“T-N-T (tago nang tago)” is a term that emerged from the Filipino diasporic experience. While it has its origins in the US-based Filipino communities, the T-N-T way of life may now be found in nearly every corner of the world where the Filipino migrant has settled. It has its unique vocabulary and features everyday strategies of evasion and survival. It is a world all its own, filled with risks and opportunities, showcasing human solidarity at its best and sordid opportunism at its worst.

One of the first accounts of the saga of the undocumented Filipino in a foreign land is the amazing book, “Underground in Japan,” by Rey Ventura. Even before its publication by Ateneo Press in 2008, I had read an early version of this work while doing research in Japan. I visited the place in Yokohama where a Filipino immigrant enclave lived, and met some of the people Ventura described so vividly in the book. In the course of my field work, I realized how universal the figure of the undocumented immigrant has become in our globalized world.

Immigrants without valid papers are totally at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. They have no rights, and receive no benefits. In the United States, they can be rounded up anytime under the Secure Communities Program. They can be detained and deported, regardless of how many years they have lived there. Their physical mobility is limited, and their circle of friends is narrow. Most live with relatives. Their US-born children are American citizens, but they themselves are treated as if they were fugitives.

It is this “broken system” that US President Barack Obama sought to remedy, albeit only partly, by an act of the executive branch.

Republicans oppose this move as a usurpation of the legislative functions of Congress. Obama defends it as a provisional solution based on humanitarian considerations, challenging Congress to urgently pass a more enduring immigration reform law.

Hailed by the large immigrant community as a positive breakthrough for immigration reform, Obama’s order, in actual fact, has very limited application. It is not an amnesty. It covers only undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years. Estimated to number around 4 million, such immigrants should have children who are US citizens or legal permanent residents. To qualify, they must register, pass a criminal background check, and pay taxes. Then they can work legally under their own name without fear of being deported. After three years, they must renew their registration and go through the same process again. Clearly, the relief offered by Obama’s executive order is far from being a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

Coming on the heels of the stunning loss of the Democratic Party in the recent midterm elections, Obama’s action can be overridden by an act of the legislature. This is precisely what Obama is challenging the Republican-dominated Congress to do: Pass a law. It is a calculated political move that puts the Republicans on the defensive, and forces them to manifest their stand on immigration reform or shut up, two years before the presidential election.  Having consolidated their hold on both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, the Republicans can mount the wrong response and derail their campaign to capture the
White House in 2016.

It is not easy to counter a President who knows when to deploy high-mindedness to defend an action that carries far-reaching implications. In words reminiscent of those he spoke at his inauguration as the first black president of the United States, Obama talked about a concept of America as a nation of immigrants, a community that unselfishly accords to everyone the opportunity to create a secure and dignified life. “For more than 200 years,” he began, “our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial.”

Reviewing his frustrated efforts to work with both houses of Congress to fix the “broken system,” Obama wrapped up his speech by going back to the theme with which he began. He is always most eloquent when he reflects on the meaning of what it is to be American. “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

Not every American shared his views. That same evening, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly told his guest, Filipino-American activist Jose Antonio Vargas, himself an undocumented alien: “It’s a compassionate move. But it may not be a just move, because you and the other people here illegally don’t deserve to be here…. You don’t have an entitlement to be here.”

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