Review | For many immigrants, family separation happens long before the border


The home of Filipino immigrant and nurse Rosalie Villanueva in a Texas suburb, where she now lives with her husband and children. Previously, Rosalie’s search for work had them living on different continents. (Jason DeParle) (Courtesy Jason DeParle/Courtesy Jason DeParle)

There is a family separation that occurs long before an immigrant reaches America’s borders. It is no less wrenching than the ruptures that the Trump administration inflicted on thousands of children and parents last year as part of its “zero tolerance” policy against illegal entry, and may at times be even more painful, since it happens voluntarily. That is, if acts born of despair can ever be described as entirely voluntary.

In “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves,” journalist Jason DeParle’s riveting multigenerational tale of one Filipino family dispersing across the globe, from Manila to Abu Dhabi to Galveston, Tex., and so many places in between, separation is a constant worry and endless toll. Parents leave their kids and country for years at a time so they can send back wages many multiples of what they previously earned. Children yearn for their parents, rebelling or wilting without them, while the youngest latch on to aunts and grandparents. Births, birthdays, weddings, illnesses, funerals — daily life slips by for the absent, imagined and unexperienced. Meanwhile, the government encourages the exodus; 1 in 7 laborers in the Philippines becomes an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW), a status so common it rates not just an acronym but also an industry of private middlemen and government agencies managing a sector that accounts for one-10th of the country’s economy.

But the price is loneliness and longing. “The two main themes of Overseas Filipino Worker life are homesickness and money,” DeParle writes. “Workers suffer the first to get the second.” With immigration a central battleground in the Trump-era culture wars, and with the southern U.S. border and Hispanic influx dominating the political debate, this book provides crucial insight into the global scope, shifting profiles and, above all, individual sacrifices of the migrant experience.

DeParle, a New York Times reporter, tells the story of Emet, Tita and their daughter Rosalie, as well as their other children and grandchildren — a Manila family he first encountered and lived with for several months in the late 1980s. As a young reporter, DeParle wanted to better understand poverty, but in the Philippines, that meant learning about migration instead. The title of his book is also the Portagana family’s unofficial creed, a pained mix of self-affirmation and abnegation.

Emet cleaned pools in a government complex in the Philippines, earning $50 a month, barely enough to scrape by with his family in their Manila shantytown. When he has the chance to clean pools in Saudi Arabia for $500 per month, he takes it, while his wife of 14 years and their five children stay behind. “Ever since his orphaned childhood, all he had wanted was a family, but to support one, he had to leave it.” Tita cries when Emet departs, left to fend for herself and the family, rising at 4:30 a.m. to boil the breakfast rice, washing the school clothes every day, making every tough decision — does she pay for a doctor’s visit or for more food? — on her own.

When Emet first sends money, she cries again. “Tita stopped running out of fish and rice,” DeParle recounts. “She bought extra school uniforms so she didn’t have to wash every day. . . . After years of toothaches, she had seven teeth pulled and treated herself to dentures. . . . But the ultimate luxury was the family’s first bed.” She told Deparle how “I was ecstatic we could lay on something soft.”

New comforts are part of “migrant lore,” DeParle writes. Some analysts worry that remittances lead to consumerist splurges, but families receiving migrant income also invest in housing, health care and education. Migration serves as a tool of economic development, DeParle suggests, because of migrants’ enduring loyalty to the family back home. Of the 11 siblings in Tita’s own family, nine worked abroad, as did all five of Tita and Emet’s children. When DeParle returned to the Philippines two decades after having lived in Tita’s home, he saw that the family’s old straw huts had morphed into a compound of a dozen houses for various relatives — and the quality of the amenities bore a direct relationship to how long each owner had worked abroad. But an aging Emet still pondered the price, nostalgic for the days in the slum. “I was happier then,” he acknowledges, “because I was with my children.”

Rosalie, their middle child, emerges as the book’s itinerant protagonist, not simply because she becomes the clan’s essential breadwinner as a nurse in America but because, for DeParle, she embodies the new face of migration. “Since 2008, the United States has attracted more Asians than Latin Americans, and nearly half of the newcomers, like Rosalie, have college degrees. Every corner of America has an immigrant like her.” Long male-dominated, migration has been increasingly feminized, in part because of the demand for caregiving workers in rich countries, a need that women have disproportionately filled. “By the mid-1990s when Rosalie went abroad, nearly half the world’s migrants were women — more than half in the United States — and they increasingly went as breadwinners, not spouses.”

Rosalie was a quiet child and an average student who considered religious life in Manila — not necessarily someone you’d pick to make it through nursing school, move to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for several years, and take and retake English-language tests until, after 20 years of working, she could obtain a visa to the United States, take on a night shift in a Galveston hospital and embrace suburban life. She is separated from her own children, just as she suffered years without Emet. Her eldest daughter grows attached to Rosalie’s sister Rowena as a sort of surrogate mother, calling her “Mama Wena” and struggling with her aunt’s absence after reuniting with Rosalie in Texas.

Having long operated as a far-flung family, Rosalie, her husband, Chris, and their three kids must not only learn to live in America — they have to learn to live together. DeParle’s examination of how the two daughters adapt to U.S. elementary schools, seeking to become more all-American than the Americans, even as their parents find solace in Texas’s Filipino immigrant networks, is a minor classic of the assimilation experience. He also reflects on the impact of communications technology on migrant communities: “Can assimilation survive Skype?” DeParle wonders, seeing how it eases transitions by helping relatives stay in touch across time zones but also lengthens and deepens immigrants’ ties with the old country.


After all, even when you’ve left, you’re never entirely gone. Any health crisis among her extended family in the Philippines results in new bills for Rosalie to cover from afar. Chronically exhausted at the hospital — where Filipino nurses feel they get shorthanded shifts and sicker patients — she must also deal with the insecurities of her suddenly stay-at-home husband, whose masculine self-perception suffers in the face of his provider-wife. (“Would you be ashamed of Daddy if I worked as a janitor?” Chris asks the kids as he seeks a job in Galveston.) DeParle highlights this “inversion” of traditional gender roles in the modern migrant experience. For women, “migration elevated their incomes, raised their status, and increased their power within their marriages,” he writes. “But it also took many away from their children, often to care for the children of others, and elevated the risks of abuse.”

DeParle has a gift for distilling complexity into pithy formulations. “Migration is history’s ripple effect,” he writes, noting how U.S. co­lo­ni­al­ism led to the establishment of the Philippines’ first nursing schools, an industry that would propel Rosalie to America a century later. He also aptly captures the United States’ conflicted feelings about immigrants, a mix of resentment and need. “Unwelcomed is not the same as unwanted,” he explains simply. And the ominous U.S. Embassy in Manila, the repository of so much hope and so many fears for Filipino visa seekers, is “the gateway to opportunity, but marines guard the gate.” The book is packed with insights masked as throwaway lines — lines that convey so much.

So I wish DeParle had conveyed more about his own role in the story of this remarkable family. “Our relationship defies easy categorization; it’s part author-subject, part old friends,” he writes, likening himself to a big brother for Rosalie and uncle to her kids. “This was a journalistic endeavor but not an entirely arm’s-length one,” DeParle admits. “Occasionally my presence shaped events I was trying to record.” Some of these events were crucial. He gets Rosalie an English tutor for her exams. He spends hours on the phone helping Rosalie practice for her interview with the Galveston hospital. Most essential, he intervenes when bureaucratic scheduling nearly derails a final visa approval. “I was there as a journalist, not an advocate,” he writes. “But Rosalie had been waiting for twenty years.” So he helps by speaking with a U.S. Foreign Service officer. It is an entirely humane impulse, and DeParle stresses that the determination that got Rosalie to America “is hers alone.” But the author’s unexpected appearances complicate and at times confuse his narrative.

“A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves” has political implications without being an overtly political work. Yes, DeParle’s sympathies are clear. “Rosalie’s experience was a triple win: good for her, good for America, and good for her family in the Philippines,” he writes. “Migration was her vehicle of salvation. It delivered her from the living conditions of the nineteenth century. It respected her talent, rewarded her sweat, and enlarged her capacity for giving.” He also stresses how Filipino immigrants thrive in America, with more education, higher employment, and lower poverty and divorce rates than the native-born.

Yet he mainly calls for calm and compromise around the immigration debates. “Be wary of seeing the issue in absolutist terms,” DeParle warns. He worries that if immigration becomes entrenched as another American culture war, like those over guns or abortion rights, its supporters will have more to lose. The warning comes under a Trump administration that has defined itself through its offensive against migrants, not just rewriting policies but seeking to write immigration out of the American tradition. On this point, DeParle offers a devastating rebuttal in another simple line.

“It’s good,” he concludes, “for your country to be the place where people go to make dreams come true.”

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest essays and book reviews, including:

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