Immigration Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez

To occupants of territories afflicted by the incapacitating effects of poverty, war, persecution, and other impediments to living with dignity, the term immigration implies mobility and, in various degrees, overcoming obstacles to crossing into areas generally regarded as preferable and more hospitable with respect to equitable access to resources, avenues for advancement, and channels for dissent.

Immigration has particular currency in the case of approximately 10 million Filipinos spread across about 200 countries either as immigrant-citizens or long-term contract workers—whether they are professional or not. To them, immigration—as opposed to in-situ engagement—is a state-endorsed option, one that had brought an estimated 16.9 billion dollars (approximately 10% of GDP) into the country’s economy by the end of 2008.

At the Second Global Forum on Migration and Development in Manila, held in October 2008, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself invoked migration as a major development strategy that redressed imbalance through mobility even as he acknowledged that discourse surrounding immigration has been “discouragingly negative,” breeding, as it has, discrimination from quarters that fear being dispossessed of opportunities and assets which are perceived to be scarce.

Immigration not only involves a changing of physical domicile, it also brings to the fore issues relating to hyphenated ethnicities as well as blurred or multiple civil allegiances. This ambiguous positionality was virtually criminalized in the not so distant past when immigrant communities implicated in wars between states (e.g., Japan and America) were forced to relocate to camps purportedly set up for their protection even though guards were posted to keep them in rather than to keep dangerous elements out. And yet outright declarations of war have not been hard prerequisites for such a climate of distrust to arise. More recent parallels, though now variably homogeneous, can be found in the ethnic enclaves that make up pocket territories within migrant magnets around the globe. In the Philippines, these have taken the form of communities such as the Parian district (Chinese quarter) which kept non-Spanish individuals outside the walled fortifications constructed under Spanish colonial rule.

Because entry into a new culture calls forth predictable vulnerabilities among individuals from both sending and hosting communities, migration today is regarded with ambivalence, given such conditions as skewed demographic prospects and conflictive encounters between resistant if not downright paranoid presettlers and newcomers, not to mention the perceived incompatibility of everyday cultural practices. Very much dependent on the capacity to integrate those settling in and those already settled in an area, the spectrum of reception ranges from charges of incursion-domination to a genuinely welcome filling in of human resource needs (addressing uneven gender spreads, providing required capital infusions or technical expertise, and renewing aging populations).

Immigration also brings up questions pertaining to the fluidity of notions such as nation, race, and identity. This is particularly pertinent given the increasing visibility and social mobility of individuals of mixed heritage, a phenomenon previously unthinkable amid the preponderance of miscegenation laws operative close to half a century ago. Nonetheless, the legal discourse on migration now appears to have shifted, encompassing the conflict between establishing the integrity of political borders and the sourcing of proficient and compliant labor, the tension between imagined commonalities to be built upon, and stark diversities.

It is in these contexts that migration is also looked upon as exile. The various waves of Filipino migration to the United States, for instance, are generally associated with—apart from colonial efforts to train a complicit bureaucracy and intelligentsia—economic vicissitudes and political repression. Early migration was indeed a function of imperial excursions into the only Asian colony of the United States. Thus the precursors of today’s Filipino-Americans were seasonal farm workers, activists fleeing persecution, medical and information technology professionals, and, recently, educators. In a pitiful attempt to psychologically compensate for this loss of skilled individuals, the current Philippine president has nominally, though officially, changed the bureaucratic moniker from overseas Filipino workers (OFW) to Filipino expatriates, the ironic “heroes” of an economy increasingly given over to global labor trends and banking on the Filipino propensity to subordinate individual well-being to a devotion to providing for family and home. It is this frenzied sending off of about 3,000 Filipinos daily across the globe, this hyperactive human trafficking which began in earnest in the 1970s under Ferdinand Marcos, that constitutes at least one stark channel of continued neoliberal hegemony.

Within the creative sphere, immigration, or more precisely, migration of form has also been a site of contestation with regard to issues of origination—predictably, creative individuals from colonized (or, alternately, non-Western) states are dismissively regarded as merely mimicking or derisively charged with being derivative in their production. Such are the tropes that have been associated with modern and contemporary Asian art leading up to the dramatic blossoming of the region’s art markets and art institutional machinery from the 1990s onward. The charged climate within which this trafficking of ideas occurs brings to fore the power relations informing migration, wherein the agents involved in the exchange generally come out of contexts that underline nonlevel playing fields, and wherein creative ideas are thought to flow one-way rather than coming out of multiple sites. It remains to be seen whether the aggression and impetus to resist being enveloped into totalizing frames characteristic of current production will eventually thwart this persistently patronizing desire to deduce a “pure,” unadulterated aesthetic impulse.

Indeed, even with the escalating transmission rate of totalizing global culture—whether through virtual or more traditional channels—these tropes of indigeneity and the privileged place accorded to the unproblematized “real” native persists. Albeit briefly, in the 1980s, nativism, or the tendency to explore themes and materials invoking rootedness, became a predictable, almost region-wide, Asian response to this imposed need to distinguish oneself from a homogenized global collective propagated by mainstream commerce and media. Within Asian discourse itself, such rigid constructions of what is true and appropriately suggestive of origin have since been overtaken by a more relaxed reckoning with influence and intertextuality as well as a critical inquisition into what was naturally regarded as alien or strange.