by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
SAN FRANCISCO, USA – ARE more Filipinos here coming out to explore the belly of the beast legally?
In view of American officials’ moves to squeeze out illegal migrants in the name of homeland security, Philippine government data swing to the affirmative node. The figures show the number of Filipinos “in hiding” – Tago ng tago (TNT) in local parlance – have dropped sharply.
This is what the multiple-year stock estimates of overseas Filipinos from 1997 to 2005, from Philippine government agency Commission on Filipinos Overseas revealed: there was a high of 1,913,941 undocumented migrants in 1998, and a “record-low” of 881,123 last year.
Looking at regional data that the CFO gave to the OFW Journalism Consortium, North, South American and Trust Territory countries –including the US– had the most drop of irregular migrants.
These countries have a total of 357,923 irregulars, down by 589,047 from the 1997 figure of 946,970, the CFO estimates.
The US had the most reductions of irregular migrants in the stock estimates data: from a high of 844,046 in 1998, undocumented Filipino migrants went down to 157,998.
Striking in the US figure was that the estimates were 510,000 in 2003, and 350,000 in 2004, the CFO record says.
The reduction of the figures in the US comes before the heated debate among American legislators on the immigration question, which began in the first quarter of the year. Several bills seen to slash benefits to non-American workers in the US Senate and House of Representatives did not meet Congress’ October 1 deadline, thus these bills go back to zero when Congress resumes sessions after the November 7 US elections.
Thus, a “good news” perspective could mean there’re more Filipinos here working or living temporarily or permanently with all documents certified legal and have been registered as so in over-90 Philippine diplomatic posts.
However, the figures themselves remain debatable: how could a government agency document the number of people it says are “undocumented”?
Likewise, some analysts say the reduction in the number of illegal migrants could mean an increase in the number of them deported back to the Philippines.
THE sharp reduction in the number of Filipinos migrating here sans legal documents reflects global trends, based on the CFO data.
For example, in Malaysia, where Sabah island is believed the common route for irregular migration, the CFO cited a drop in the number of undocumented Filipinos to 125,000 last year from half a million six years ago. The drop came after the Malaysian government cracked down on irregular migrants in 2002.
If the year-on-year reduction figure for the US is 192,000, the CFO registered a reduction in Malaysia of 175,000 based on an estimated 300,000 undocumented Filipinos in that country in 2004.
The CFO listed other countries with large numbers of undocumented migrants as of last year include France (40,105), Singapore (37,600), Japan (30,619), Israel (23,000), Italy (20,000), and the United Arab Emirates (20,000).
East and South Asian countries —including Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Korea— is another regional hub of irregular migration that got a significant drop: the 2005 figure of 238,238 is 496,109 less than the year 2000 estimates of 734,347.
Lawyer Golda Roma of the CFO’s Planning and Policy Research division says estimates of both undocumented and documented temporary contract workers and immigrants come from Philippine diplomatic posts abroad, and records from homeland-based agencies involved in managing migration outflow.
What CFO does, Roma says, is “cross-check these data from the posts”.
Countries like the US have figures coming from host countries’ census offices, while the other data come from passport registrants in diplomatic posts, records for assistance to nationals program, travel documents, and even meetings with members of Filipino communities in host countries.
Roma said there is no precise figure in coming up with those estimates of undocumented Filipino migration, yet she says it should be “at least 20 percent of the total number of overseas Filipinos”.
The 2005 stock estimates show there are 7,924,188 overseas Filipinos –3,651,727 temporary contract workers, 3,391,338 permanent residents, and the 881,123 who are undocumented.
THERE is one skeptic in these numbers and she’s in Manila.
Maruja Asis of the Scalabrini Migration Center in Quezon City said the drop in the number of who are called undocumented, illegal or irregular Filipino migrants –from 1,913,941 in 1998 to 881,123 last year– should “not reflect changes in between-years”.
It [the numbers drop] should note efforts related to curbing such migration flows in host countries, Asis said in a phone interview.
That is the danger of citing numbers, she added.
“Once it is pronounced, this figure is cited over and over again and says it is reduced.”
Still, San Francisco Consul-General Rowena Sanchez thinks the return of undocumented migrants is still “good news, because these individuals can then be able to get their jobs back home, to save, and go on with their regular lives”.
Sanchez is one of six heads of diplomatic posts in the United States, home to an estimated 10.5 million undocumented migrants (including 210,000 Filipinos) in 2005 according to an August report by the Department of Homeland Security.
Sanchez said the deportations from here last May are “usual” as the US sends home Filipinos jailed for crimes.
“Some were caught during immigration raids,” Sanchez says, toeing the official US law enforcement line on these cases.
In recent months and after protests against US immigration reform bills, the raids have died down, especially here in San Francisco or the whole of Northern California.
Even if Asis thinks that arriving at estimates about the number of migrants in general is difficult, officials of government-run offices handling migrant outflow say the drop of illegal migration is “good news” on their part, and for undocumented migrants as well.
Good then, says Asis —and for now, “the temporary postures are ‘there seems to be a reduction to the number of irregular migrants’ or ‘there could be some reduction’”.
But Asis said those making “multiple-year comparisons” over stock estimates of the global Filipino presence are ignoring one factor: “These data do not reflect the changes in between.”
ROMA and Asis think the reduction of undocumented migrants is a function of laws in host countries, deportations or repatriation drives, regularization and migrant amnesty programs, and other immigration-related occurrences.
An exception is the strife in Lebanon where government officials said some two-thirds of those coming home are undocumented domestic workers.
Malaysia’s periodic deportations of Filipinos from Sabah to Zamboanga peninsula (southern Philippines) have resulted into some 326 deportations last April, and over-30,000 in total since August 2002, reports SunStar Zamboanga last April 11.
This continuous deportation is “seen in the reports of the post in the last few years,” says Roma.
But providing amnesty to undocumented migrants, Asis said, “is not for a long time” –and its shelf life is two years.
She noted that the reduction of the number of undocumented migrants in the US could be traced to Washington’s employment permit system.
Apart from Malaysia’s repatriation drives, Korea and Japan had their own drives from 2002 to 2003, says Asis, citing her center’s periodic monitoring of undocumented migration news and data.
Asis, a migration scholar who also edited a book about unauthorized migration in Southeast Asia, said Thailand had instigated a registration system for illegal workers (including Filipinos) to regularize their stay.
It is East Asian countries Malaysia, Thailand and Korea where the problem of unauthorized migration is serious, Asis wrote in a December 2005 article for the Asia-Pacific Population Journal this regularization trend is also seen in Italy.
“You can stay and work there for a certain period of time, but the legal workers’s status is subject to renewal,” Asis explains.
Regularizing irregular immigrants is also a recent phenomenon in Spain and Greece, but these incentives “are very specific and do not come often”, says Asis.
But what worries Asis is that as countries tighten their immigration laws and borders, there is increasing demand to continually send migrants through unauthorized means, including trafficking and smuggling women and children.
“Something’s got to give here.”
OFW Journalism Consortium and the Yuchengco Media Fellows Program, University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim