By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD

An Open Letter to Honor, an Immigrant Lawyer with a Heart and Soul

Dear Honor,

I am making it official now: That I am making our conversation—our con verso exercises not simply one for the fruitful exchange and diffusion of ideas but to document the myriad ways by which our narratives of exclusion could be included in our stories.

Our act of documenting our stories could a powerful play of possibilities. For this is at the same time an attempt at making an enlightened inclusion of that which is part and parcel of exclusion. As such, the stories become a site of our struggle as (im)migrants in and of a new place, a strange place, indeed, a place with its twists and turns.

Today you told me about your meeting with one high-ranking immigration officer. You said he called you to a meeting to thresh out some issues with you—you Filipino immigration lawyers practicing in the state. I will leave out some portions of the material of our conversation for the speculation of our readers and to protect those who need to be protected. But just the same, I will be true to the general schema of your story which is also my story now even as I try as well to narrate my experiences with Filipino immigrants in general, with Filipino Americans as well, and with immigration lawyers in particular. There are sad stories here in these encounters—and these sad stories make you pack up and go back to the home country. In many ways, you ask yourself: Why, why did I ever come to this country with its characters like these? I am, of course, generalizing. For committing such a fallacy, I beg to be forgiven.

You said you were called to a meeting with the immigration officer who knew what was happening among the members of the Filipino immigrant community. The officer told you: You are the only immigrant race who tells on each other. I guess this time, I better translate it: Kayo lang ang lahing nagtuturo sa isa’t isa upang mahuli ng imigrasyon. We can even imagine the other texts here: Yung ibang lahi, hindi nagsasabi tungkol sa isa’t isa. Hindi ibinubuko ang kapwa. Yung ibang lahi, pinuprotektahan ang isa’t isa, kinukupkop, inaaruga, tinutulungan. Kayo, isinusubo ninyo ang isa’t isa sa panganib.

I tell you now, Honor.

It is not the first time that I have heard of this. Even years back when I have not yet decided to come and try my luck here, I have heard of many miserable stories of many miserable Filipinos whose only mistake was that one laos of an artista knew of their immigration status and that for years and years on end, they have lived the difficult life of a tago-ng-tago.

Such a most terrible word, this, this TNT, as if one were bad dynamite that is on the ready to create havoc and destruction.

This artista, reports have it back in the Philippines, was bent on telling on who were not ligal like her. People had talked about her antics and her money-making ways—and thus many considered her an abomination.

She would invariably investigate if you were here on a tourist visa and that if you were, did you, in fact, overstay? She had a way of finding out especially those who crossed her path. And she would be paid a hefty sum for her effort—some $500 or so. And she would love that—the reward—as if it were a pakimkim for her traitorous deed.

That was the talk of the town—and this story went the rounds in the home country.

Sayang, some would say. Dapat lang, some others would retort especially those who have reasons to pat their back and stroke their bloated egos.

These are reactions in the extremes, of course. One denies the right to live—or try to live with decency. The other affirms the right to make something meaningful out of the senselessness of living a life of nonsense in the country of political hurricanes and moral typhoons. We remember: we migrants and immigrants did not live in a country where the winds talked in soothing, salving, whistling whispers. We lived in the path of winds that packed hundreds of miles per hour and these winds were twin to our nightmares.

But back to what you said—the immigration officer telling you of our penchant for telling on each other to the immigration services. What tough luck! Ang hirap maging Filipino sa Pilipinas; mahirap din ang maging Filipino sa Estados Unidos!

You said you felt sad, so sad when you heard this. Did I hear from you that you were so ashamed, so embarrassed, so humiliated as well by that revelation?

Did I hear you say that the Koreans look after their people?

Did I hear you say that the Chinese help each other and that those who just came in—the bagong salta, the bagong dating—are assisted until they are able to gain a footing in this country?

Did I hear you say that the Vietnamese have gone so far that they have now been able to elect their own congressperson after only a few years of immigrant life in the US whereas we Filipinos have been here for so long as we can remember?

I can keep on enumerating the races that are seemingly doing better than us in terms of building their own communities, in terms of regaining their dignity and self-respect in this land of exile.

And each time that we mention them, we can only sigh, envious of the possibilities they have collectively opened for each other—the possibilities towards the future, the possibilities to unify and find their own voice as a people, the possibilities to becoming real and genuine citizens in a new land.

You told me about your plans to put up a kind of a clearinghouse, some kind of an advocacy or a migrant resource network for migrants and immigrants alike.

The clearinghouse were to provide free assistance to those who do not have the money to get an abogado de campanilla to work on their immigration cases.

Did I hear you say that right on the dot, when that idea became public, you got many calls from other Filipino immigration lawyers and admonished you into not doing that precisely because you will lose sight of the economic benefits of maintaining the status quo—that situation where an (im)migrant would remain in limbo and thus would be reduced to the alternatives laid down by the immigration lawyer who has become an expert on the calculus of benefits from maintaining ignorance of the law and dependency on his immigration expertise?

Did I hear you say that right away you felt that you were being ostracized for having all those non-lawyerly ideas and that it seemed that they made you feel that you were betraying the cause of immigrant lawyering in this country?

Did I hear you say that the panyeros and the panyeros thought that you were a fool—or that you were making a fool out of your lawyerly self?

But then, you were—you are—a case, Honor.

You are not cut out to make a killing out of the misery of the kababayan. For that you will be blessed by the author of life, by the forces of good.

I have gone through all that and I tell you, we as a people have so much to learn from our betrayal of each other.

The kababayan who has no heart and has no soul will always take advantage of us. I have seen them—they who promise you everything just so they can extort your last cent. They forget, of course, that to have that dollar in your pocket, you have had to work doubly harder than the way the workers do work here.

Ah, the mightly dollar, Honor, is enough to make us forget who we are as a people.

I will share with you many stories next time. In the meantime, let us work on that migrant resource network to help our helpless kababayan. It is high time that we do something concrete and definite to address these issues of our life in exile. It is high time that we shame the opportunists, embarrass them before the public, and expose them for what they are.

There is no way we can ever grow as a people in the United States if we kept our old tribal ways, our selfish pecuniary interest, and our narrow understanding of relationships and the world.

Let us move on from here,

Juan Migrante

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