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10:52 PM January 26th, 2012

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By: Michael L. Tan, January 26th, 2012 10:52 PM

I remember the term being used as early as the 1970s: TNT, which meant tago ng tago (hiding and hiding) and referred to Filipinos who went overseas usually as tourists, and then stayed on without the proper papers.

At that time, TNT mainly referred to Filipinos in the United States. People would get a tourist visa, or a student visa, and then stayed on after the visa had expired, getting a Social Security number and finding a job . . . or an American citizen to marry, which would then make them eligible to stay on.

It was easier then to enter the United States and, for Filipinos able to speak English, to blend in.  But the dividing lines were there. There were citizens. There were green card holders, which meant they were permanent residents. Then there were the aliens, which sounded too much like extra-terrestrials.

There were legal aliens, with the proper papers.  And there were the illegal ones, the TNT, or in today’s legal parlance, the undocumented aliens.

There are many TNT stories, of people living in constant fear of being discovered and deported. Even those who had married American citizens, often an arrangement of convenience, worried about Immigration agents dropping in to check if they were really living with their citizen spouses or, as the stories went, even going into the homes to check for evidence that there was really cohabitation—closets with the husband and wife’s clothing, for example—rather than just the use of a postal address.

There were fears too of someone squealing and turning them in because US Immigration offered rewards for the whistle-blowers, which would include fellow Filipinos. So, while Filipinos joked constantly about the TNT and had many TNT anecdotes, many were careful not to reveal their own status, not even to, or especially to, fellow Filipinos.

The undocumented aliens now come from every corner of the world, living hidden lives that can extend for years, and each year becoming more difficult as the US government imposes new rules. Some years back, for example, they banned aliens from getting a Social Security number, which made it more difficult landing a job since employers usually look for this number.

The undocumented aliens took the risks, seeking a better life for their children. Children born in the United States automatically had American citizenship. But other “aliens” brought in children with them. The children were born overseas, and these could only follow their parents’ citizenship … as well as illegal status.

A whole generation of such children has come of age, as American as Americans can be in their command of English, their way of thinking, their way of living. But they are not American because they lack the citizenship papers.

Identities

That’s where the term undocumented comes in.  You need to think hard about the term to appreciate what it means.  Undocumented means no documents or papers, which seems inconsequential except that the papers deal with people and their identities, and opportunities for the future. These are people who have names, who attended school, even graduating from college, but legally do not quite exist. They are trapped in their situation, unable to get a passport for example. Neither can they come out to apply for citizenship because if they did, their illegal status would be revealed and they would be deported.

Now, young undocumented migrants in the United States are organizing themselves. One of their posters reads: “Undocumented, Unafraid.” These courageous undocumented “aliens” are now openly declaring their status (or non-status) and risking deportation, yet they’re taking the chance as “dream activists,” so-called because they’re pushing for the passage of a Dream (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The Dream Act would give permanent residency—eventually leading to citizenship—to “illegal aliens” who went to the United States as minors, who have lived five years continuously in the United States, and who have graduated from high school or served in the US military.

Among the undocumented Filipino-Americans now taking a stand is Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. Vargas stirred controversy when he came out in June 2011 with an article in the New York Times magazine (www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/magazine/my-life-as-an-undocumented-immigrant.html?_r=4), describing how he had been sent to live with his maternal grandparents in the United States when he was 12, growing up in Mountain View, California (a schoolmate greets him, “What’s up” and he answers “the sky”), discovering his green card is fake, and learning to live a double life.

Earlier this week I was listening to a radio program on the Internet, Latino USA, which features issues of relevance to Hispanic Americans. That day they had an interview with Vargas and other undocumented “aliens.” Indeed, they came through as thoroughly American. Vargas was particularly articulate, speaking about how important it was to become documented because this was an issue of who they were.  Vargas said it was easier coming out as gay, which he did many years ago, than as an undocumented migrant, but that he felt he had to.

“What is out to you,” he explains to listeners, “is in to me.”  He goes on to explain how the Dream activists’ coming-out is a way of forcing Americans “to look you in the eye and finding themselves in you.”

Dangerous lives

Listening to Vargas and other guests on that radio program (lwww.latinousa.org/981-2) got me thinking not just about Filipino TNT in the United States but in all parts of the world. Their lives are lonely, difficult, dangerous.  There are Filipinos shuttling, roaming around Hong Kong, Macau and China, crossing borders as their visas expire, and taking on all kinds of odd jobs—teaching English, for example—unable to negotiate for better wages.

Like their counterparts in the United States, some have raised families while overseas. In a reversal of the dream activists’ situation, there was the case of a Filipino couple, Arlan and Sarah Calderon, who had been TNT in Japan for 15 years. They were deported in 2009 while their daughter, Noriko, who spoke only Japanese, was allowed to stay on to finish her schooling.

We forget about the thousands of Muslim Filipinos who fled civil war in Mindanao beginning in the early 1970s, finding refuge in Sabah, Malaysia. They are undocumented, neither Filipino nor Malaysian, as are their children and grandchildren. When Malaysian authorities raided the Filipino colonies some years back, some of the young refugees expressed shock at learning they were undocumented, illegal.

The Americans are at least considering a Dream Act. For millions of undocumented “aliens” across the world, there is no Dream Act, there are no dreams.

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Email: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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