“Home is complicated”: Thoughts of returning from an undocumented Filipina

“We are talking about papers, here,” said activist and documentary filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas.

I heard this emphatic, simple statement when the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist formerly of the Washington Post spoke at the University of Chicago on May 9, 2012. The Filipino-born, California-raised Vargas entitled his June 2011, New York Times Magazine-published letter, My life as an Illegal Immigrant.


“Home is complicated. I don’t know what it means,” Stephanie said. “I don’t think it’s a geographic place.”

Rule one of traveling internationally: Get all your supporting papers in order: passport, visa and cash.

No papers, no go. In other cases, however, the opposite is also true: No papers, no stay.

The common verb that balikbayans, or Filipinos returning to their native country, use to describe this homecoming journey is uuwi, to return home.

In the days leading up to my trip, I thought about my fellow kababayans (countrymen) who do not have the choice to return home to the Philippines from America. This option does not exist because they cannot legally re-enter the United States. They are undocumented and do not have legal status here.


Stephanie studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You may have seen her giving voice to her stories with artist-activist collective, Elephant Rebellion. Or staging a protest for immigrant rights with a “lock box” in front of the Congress Hotel while President Obama stayed there this past May.

As an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), she works toward “full recognition of the rights and contributions of all immigrants.” IYJL keeps immigrants from being deported through staging public protests, finding pro bono legal representation, raising awareness in the community and working with legislators like Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D).

Stephanie educated me about how ICE, or the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, works differently in regions across the country. Immigration is different in the Midwest, in Chicago, than in other urban areas along the coasts. She told me of how, though Chicago has a long history of labor organizing, more often than not, undocumented workers are not as protected as workers with legal resident standing. IYJL works with a diversity of immigrants to strengthen community ties within.

“Current narratives and legislation are creating divisions and hierarchies – who can qualify for relief and who cannot – and I see this as an overt attack and attempt to divide our community and movement,” she said.

For the immensity of the task, “state, federal, local grants [make more] funding accessible to non-profits for advocacy, rather than [for] action,” she said – particularly for radical action.

It seems like endless work, the fight for immigrant rights to establish new homes peaceably. “We have this sense of urgency about our work,” Stephanie said.

She said she fights for other young people whose parents brought them over when they were children. Only when Stephanie began to apply for colleges did she learn of her undocumented status.

Her parents fled the Philippines with her and her sister to escape poverty, violence and political persecution, first to the Marshall Islands – a sovereign nation in free association with the United States – then to various places within the mainland US and finally to the suburbs of Chicago.


According to most public estimates, at any given time, there are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. And about 525,000 of those “unauthorized” immigrants reside in Illinois – or roughly 4.1% of the state’s population in 2010, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report.

I know and have known them. They’re my family. They’re friends and neighbors.

In Filipino slang, they’re TNT, or tago nang tago, or ‘hiding and hiding.’ Some Americans regard them as illegal – the rationale being, “they come here illegally, so they are illegal.”

You probably already know someone in this situation, too. Students overstay study visas. Professionals overstay work visas. Tourists take extended ‘vacations.’ They are the so-called unskilled labor force who care for the elderly and disabled, who clean hotel rooms and wash the dishes long after dinner is done. They flee political or sectarian violence and seek asylum. They are men and women and children. (Yes, children, too.) They’re from every nation and territory and race on Earth.

Some of these immigrants call themselves and those like them ‘undocumented Americans.’ The push to change the language and terms of these individuals moves in counter to the fear, shame, stigma and divisiveness caused within and towards the immigrant community because of someone’s legal residency status.


Given her circumstances, I asked Stephanie if she wants to return to the Philippines someday, given the option.

“I feel this longing to go back. Though I wonder if this is a place where I will be othered. Will this feel like home?” Stephanie answered me.

“But it’s not even an option, and it makes me emotional,” she continued.


July 11, Manila.

We finally arrived and were seated in Rizal Hall at Malacañang Palace. Large portraits of the national hero lined one wall — Rizal writing, Rizal reading a book, Rizal checking the eyesight of a child. Large wooden and glass chandeliers hung above, illuminating the woven pattern of the ceiling, doubtless crafted from native hardwoods. The press corps closed in behind us with their lanyard credentials, tripods setups and high definition cameras. We were informed: The President of the Republic, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, was on his way.

Today was the most anticipated day of the Manila portion of the Ambassadors’ Tour for many of us. Rarely does one get to have an audience with, if briefly, a sitting head of state.

In our finest Filipinana – or however close to that we could get to traditional formal attire – our day started early with a wreath laying at Luneta. The tour guide earlier that morning informed us that the wreath laying at the Rizal Monument and twenty-one gun salute by members of the Philippine military branches is standard protocol for all visiting heads of state before a visit with the President. The Republic of the Philippines’ Ambassadors to the United States and Canada, Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. and Leslie A. Gatan respectively, led the ceremony with the Consul Generals of Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Toronto, Ottawa, Agana (Guam) and our large contingent of nearly 500 tour participants. Each of sixteen coach buses was accompanied on board by members of the President’s security force that day. Police escorted the convoy.

Briskly walked the President into the hall. President Aquino spoke to us for about ten minutes, in English.

Early in his remarks, President Aquino said, “Welcoming you all today offers me a fulfilling break from my other duties—and it gives me a special happiness as I am receiving balikbayans here in Malacañang, the home of every Filipino.”

I want to believe this sentiment, but I question it. What is “home” if so many Filipinos – 9.4 million – leave its shores to earn enough to provide for their families, or permanently migrate to escape violence and poverty?



“Considering the work you do and all you’re fighting for,” I asked Stephanie, “do you consider the United States home, then?”

She replied, “Home is complicated. I don’t know what it means. I think home is a place where I can be myself and feel validated. It’s not static, it continually travels, it’s contextual. Home is not so much a physical space.”

Stephanie tells me about instances when, even among Filipinos and Filipino Americans, she feels alienated because they have middle-class, not working class backgrounds and sometimes, narrow worldviews. Her gender, her mixed race, her personal history, her undocumented status – the variety of facets that make up one’s identity -, because of one or a combination of these, has Stephanie felt othered, made not to feel at home, as an outsider.

“I live in the U.S. because if I go back to the Marshall Islands or the Philippines, I would have less access and visibility [to] impact change for the countries I have called home.”

Stephanie’s choices of where to make home lie between apathy and action.


Note: This post is not sponsored by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism.  But I did write it about events on that trip, the 2013 Ambassadors’ Tour in July 2013, of which the Philippines’ DOT underwrote my participation.

Notes and Related Stories


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