Jason DeParle’s recent book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, begins in 1987, when he meets Tita Comodas while traveling on a Luce Scholarship in the Philippines. Chiefly from the perspective of Tita’s daughter, Rosalie, who was 16 at the time, the veteran New York Times reporter tells the story of one family’s journey from Leveriza Street in Manila—one of the most destitute corners of the world—to a prosperous suburb in Houston, after three decades have passed and Rosalie has had three children of her own. In an interview for The Nation, I spoke with DeParle about the origins of a project 30 years in the making, the fraught history and political machinery of labor export in the Philippines, and the meaning of migration in 21st-century America.
Noah Flora: I wanted to talk to you about that period of your life. You were 26 years old at the time. What was it that you had set out to do? What was your project in the Philippines, and what was the inspiration behind it?
Jason DeParle: I was actually thinking about getting out of journalism. I worked for four years as a journalist, and I was asking myself whether I wanted to do something that was more active and less observational. I was having some doubts or questions about the observational nature of journalism. I had done a series of stories on the public hospital system in Louisiana while I was writing for a newspaper in New Orleans and was enamored with the young doctors who could take sick and wounded people and heal them. And I felt frustrated that a journalist could only observe and describe them.
So I took a year out of the newsroom and was thinking maybe of going to medical school or becoming a social worker or a lawyer—just being more involved with those in need, especially people in the developing world. Once I got to the Philippines, I wanted to get more involved in actual community lives. I didn’t go there to write a story; I just went there to get to know people.
What I discovered about myself, whether it’s good or bad, was that when left to my own devices, what I started doing was taking notes. I started interviewing Tita. I didn’t resolve whether or not journalism is useful in the world—I just resolved that I was a journalist.
NF: One of the things that interested me immediately was that year, 1986—that was a huge period of political transition in the Philippines. Early in that year, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos had been ousted by a huge mass demonstration known as the People Power Revolution. What was the political atmosphere like, given that it was such a historically tumultuous point in time?
JD: It was extremely unstable. There were coups while I was there, tanks on the street. And that was kind of the backdrop to a lot of Tita’s life, because she was a member of this… self-help group. It’s hard to describe exactly what it was. It was called a “basic Christian community.” It was a mix of religious group, political group, and economic livelihood group. But she was part of this slum uplift organization that had campaigned for Corazon Aquino. She felt invested in Aquino and in the prospects for Philippine democracy. So it was part of her life, and I think she very much felt like her country was in a fragile developmental stage.
NF: I know there was a lot of optimism about Aquino at that time. You were there for a year—did you see a shift toward disillusionment with Aquino? Because eventually that’s kind of what ended up happening.
JD: My corner of the Philippines was an extremely narrow one—this family in this shantytown—and so I wouldn’t say that Tita or the family got disillusioned. It was more like it was under siege from both the left and the right. There were these young radicals in the shantytown who wanted to go to the New People’s Army and fight from the left, join the Maoist guerrillas. And then there were the Marcos loyalists who were trying to bring back the old regime and the colonels who were trying to do the coup. I found Tita to be the most earnest servant of the people, the earnest carrier of the People Power spirit.
NF: One of the most interesting sections for me in the book is when you talk about Marcos’s role in the historical development of labor export policy, this policy of pushing people to leave the country to work elsewhere. Could you talk a little bit more about this?
JD: It grew out of the Marcos dictatorship and martial law. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, and by 1984 the economy was a mess. So the Philippines had mass unemployment and a communist insurgency. It was an economic problem. It was also a security issue, because you had lots of unemployed young men in the capital.
And Saudi Arabia was kind of a mirror image. Saudi Arabia was awash in petrodollars after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo but short on workers, and the Philippines had workers but no jobs. So it was perfect timing, and Marcos seized on it to start sending Filipinos to Saudi Arabia, largely to do construction at that point. Saudi Arabia was really underdeveloped—they needed roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, hospitals, shopping malls, and they had the money to pay for it. Marcos sold it as a temporary measure, said it would phase out by 1980. But he phased out long before migration did.
NF: Most people don’t know about that historical route of travel between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia for work.
JD: Right, because in most cases, migration is generally seen as an individual phenomenon. In most cases, governments even try to stop it. But the Philippines was the first to encourage it on a mass scale, as an economic development strategy.
NF: That’s actually the next question I had for you. In the book, you discuss the recruitment economy that developed out of this push for labor export—you call it “an industry of middleman recruiters.” Can you say more about that?
JD: The middleman economy is a huge thing, and it’s not just the Philippines. Globally, there’s a large middleman industry that brokers labor, places people into jobs. It’s poorly regulated, riddled with corruption and exploitation. It’s one of the biggest problems in labor migration. People get recruited, often from the provinces, with false promises. They get charged fees—often illegally. It’s common for people to sell a farm, sell livestock; they go deeply into debt to pay these middlemen thousands of dollars on the promise of these jobs. And often the jobs are not what they were promised. Sometimes they don’t exist at all. Sometimes people wind up going overseas and then get trafficked into bondage—or in less extreme cases, they just find that they’re making less money than they were promised, or are working under much greater hardships, or don’t get paid on time. There’s every iteration of a scam you can imagine in this industry. On the whole, it’s a big problem for workers globally.
NF: One of the central claims of your book is that migration is, as you call it, “the world’s largest anti-poverty program.” I was wondering if you could elaborate?
JD: Well, the light-bulb moment for me, the moment I realized what a big deal global migration was, was when I discovered that remittances—the money that people send home to their families—were three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. It is the source of external money coming into the developing world. Critics often say, “People need to do more for themselves.” Well, migrants do. Migrant labor is the health care system of the Philippines, it’s the student aid system in the Philippines, it’s the low-income housing program in the Philippines. Poor people go abroad to fix up their houses, send their kids to school.
For example, Emet was cleaning a pool in Manila for $50 a month. When he went to Saudi Arabia, he got $500 for doing the exact same work. He was able to increase his earnings 1,000 percent.
NF: I guess that brings us to a point of tension. Migration—and the institution of labor export in the Philippines, specifically—does help a lot of people in that way. But then, on the other hand, there is the exploitation at the heart of the industry that you were just talking about.
JD: You know what really sums that up for me? Going abroad, they don’t say, “I’m going to make my riches” or “I’m going to conquer the world.” They say, “I’m going to try my luck.” That’s the Filipino phrase for going abroad. And I think the fact that knowing things can go badly, so many of them are so eager to go nonetheless—it tells you something about Filipino poverty.
NF: The Philippines has been pushing labor export for decades now. But the reality is that it still remains an incredibly impoverished country in spite of this. To what extent is labor export a meaningful solution to poverty?
JD: Well, I don’t know of any place in the world that points to remittances as being a significant trigger for economic development. I don’t think remittances have ever turned a poor country into a middle-income country. But I think they’ve had a profound anti-poverty effect for the people who send and receive them. There are millions of Filipinos who are substantially better off as a result of working abroad. But you’re certainly right: It hasn’t jumped-started the Philippine economy. I don’t think there’s much evidence that it’s hurt the Philippine economy, but I don’t know if it’s held the economy back.
NF: You started working on this book in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that you published anything about the Philippines. Why did you pick up the Philippines as a writing subject at that time?
JD: I’d stayed in touch with the family and was really interested in their story. When I moved in with them, the father was abroad and the mom was raising five kids on the money he sent back. All five of those kids eventually grew up and became overseas workers like their father. And when I went back to do research for that piece, I saw that this extraordinary dependency on migration within this one family was typical of a growing global phenomenon. I hadn’t realized how ubiquitous migration had become.
NF: When you think about the intended audience for this book, the people that you want to reach, who are they? And what kind of political work do you hope this book will do?
JD: Usually, when journalists set out to write a book, they have a view of an issue and then find characters that illustrate the point they’re trying to make. That’s not what happened with this book. I found a family and was interested in their stories; I didn’t set out to make a point about migration. It just so happened that the story ended in a moment of growing political controversy about migration.
I think if you look at this story, you would think that, on balance, migration is good. While it involved a lot of pain and sacrifice, it was good for this family, good for Rosalie’s patients, and it’s beneficial overall to the United States. I hope in this moment, the book can remind the country of the value of being a nation of immigrants—and that, contrary to what critics are saying, this generation is no different from the past in terms of their motivations and the ways in which they can enrich American society.
NF: So what is the role of a journalist at a time like this, when the subject of immigration is so fraught and it’s having a material effect on people’s lives—ICE agents raiding people’s workplaces and homes; last week an agent shot an undocumented man in the street in Nashville. How should a journalist be reporting on these issues?
JD: I think the story has gotten dominated by coverage of undocumented migration and the border crisis. And those are really important subjects that deserve to be covered as intensely as they’re being covered. But I think an unfortunate side effect of the constant focus on the crisis at the border has been the underreporting on legal immigration. Three-quarters of the people who have migrated here are here legally. I think that phenomenon has been overlooked. It’s a happier story, a more successful story, and even more, it’s just a bigger story, so it deserves to be covered more. Imagine that there were no border crisis; we would still have tens of millions of people coming here, just as we did at the beginning of the 20th century. And they’re going to change American life; they’re changing American culture, politics, the economy.
We’re undergoing this hugely important phenomenon in our country, and it’s kind of being pushed aside. Rosalie represents a part of the immigrant population that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. For decades, Asians have outnumbered Latinos among new immigrants. And the majority of new immigrants have college degrees and live in the suburbs. So I hope this can help balance our sense of what immigration is.