Most of the great American immigration stories are about people who come here to give their kids a better life. But usually, the life they are making is a life in America. We rarely hear about the people who come here, but leave their families behind. Each year they send billions of dollars in remittances back to their home countries, but they remain.
In a moving article in the New Yorker earlier this month, Rachel Aviv tells the story of Emma, a woman who came to New York from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Emma had a college degree and a job working for the government, but she also had seven daughters to support. Her husband’s family had a restaurant, but it went bankrupt. So their family of nine was living on $50 a week.
Emma’s decision to leave was not uncommon. According to research from Scalabrini Migration Center, approximately 3,000 Filipinos leave the country for overseas work every day. While it used to be mostly men who went abroad to support their families, “female migration started in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 2006, women migrants outnumbered men among the newly hired land-based workers.”
And they’re not just working as nannies. As birth rates have slowed in countries like Japan and to a lesser extent the United States, other countries have increasingly become dependent on the Philippines and other countries to provide workers to care for the elderly.
As Aviv writes:
By the spring of 2000, Emma’s neighborhood was being emptied of mothers. One of [her friends from school] had left for New York, as had Emma’s home-economics teacher, a college classmate, and several members of her church. That year, after her two oldest daughters entered college, Emma, who was forty-four, realized that she could never afford to pay tuition seven more times, so she applied for a tourist visa to America.
She didn’t make it on the first try, but on the second, she did. And soon after arriving here, she found a job working for a family who paid her $375 a week to care for two young girls. Aviv describes how Emma would call home every day and talk to different family members. Her daughters missed her terribly, and Emma had to work hard not to become too attached to other people’s children. In the meantime, Emma has put all of her daughters through college, but there is always some other expense to pay for. And she has not been home since she left. If she went home, she would risk not being able to return to the U.S.
The fact that many of these workers are here illegally creates the opportunity for abuse by employers since the women do not want their employers to report them, and they don’t want to come to the attention of the authorities by reporting on their employers. The problems are typically worse in other countries where migrant Filipinos go, like Saudi Arabia, for instance, where foreign workers have been kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered. Their families back home often have no idea what has happened.
Still, many workers see the risks as worth it. A 2003 study, in the words of one researcher, found that “children of Filipino migrants were doing better than children of non-migrants in terms of material indicators. Also, children of migrants were found to perform as well, if not better, compared to children of non-migrants in academic and health indicators. Findings from the study suggest that children benefit from remittances, as evidenced by children of migrants being more likely to attend private schools, their greater participation in extra-curricular activities, and better physical health indicators.”
While there is no doubt that remittances have offered Emma’s family and many others a higher standard of living, research has also shown that the absence of mothers has been very difficult for families—more so than the absence of fathers. According to the Scalabrini Migration Center research, mothers take over the roles that fathers had, but the reverse is not always true. Fathers tend to assign caregiving roles to other relatives instead. And many of them have their own families to care for.
Though there has been less research on the effect of these migration patterns on marriage than on children, it is hard to imagine how most marriages would survive the absence of one partner for years or decades. Indeed, it is clear by the end of the New Yorker article that Emma’s husband has had plenty of other partners during her absence, and Emma, too, has moved on.
Is there any way out of this tradeoff—how do women choose between climbing their way out of poverty and effectively disintegrating their families? We don’t know if Emma ever thought to bring her family here. But obviously an immigration system that suited our economic needs would be a good start.
Even if Emma did want to just come here to work temporarily, we need to have a system that allows migrant laborers to travel freely back and forth even if they don’t want to live here permanently. Many immigrants are here illegally, not because they want to take advantage of our welfare system but because they know that if they ever leave, they may not be able to make it back.