Migrant Returns

Katrina Navallo

For the Filipino migrant, what does it mean to come ‘home’? Eric Pido’s Migrant Returns captures the return experiences of balikbayan (Filipino immigrants) from the United States, who experienced housing foreclosures during the 2008 financial crisis. It focuses on the anxieties of their homecoming, which is locally viewed as either a fruitful end to a successful migrant’s journey, or an unsuccessful attempt to integrate oneself in one’s country of destination, among others. Because of the nature of their unintended returns, the book examines the material and affective translations of their long-term laboring in the United States, and how they negotiate the sudden precarity of their settlement abroad due to the global economic downturn. Meanwhile, their return is seized by the government’s (foreign) retirement programs and the boom of real estate development in the Philippines, propelled by what the author calls the ‘balikbayan economy’. The imaginings of return and homecoming, he argues, is subject to the capitalistic interventions of the state, resulting in a form of exploitation in which, ‘the Philippine government utilizes balikbayans to sustain the country’s foothold within the global economy’ (p. 5).

The book situates the development of the balikbayan economy, propped by the remittance sending of migrant laborers (known as Overseas Filipino Workers or OFWs) to their families in the Philippines as a driving factor in the rise of so-called properties for development (p. 40). The government’s tourism project of creating the Philippines as a retirement haven has put in place the Philippine Retirement Agency, which manages the legal and consular aspects of investing in real estate properties for foreigners and former Filipinos, and has worked in tandem with private developers to establish properties that offer security, peace, and the promise of a comfortable middle class life. Concurrent with this agenda, Pido analyzes the transformation of the national socio-economic and urban landscape through the deliberate attempts by both the state and private sector to transform the migrants’ affective laboring into material investment. This extends the analysis of the Philippine state as not only a labor broker,[1] but also as an investment manager that ensures that migrants’ remittances and savings are ‘properly’ channeled. In fact, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas’ ‘Diaspora to Development’ program for migrant returnees, has components on educating migrant returnees on financial instruments and investment services available in the Philippines.[2]

The creation of retirement villages in special economic zones in areas including Subic, Clark Airbase, and Tagaytay has been marketed for both foreign retirees and former Filipinos, who are regarded as having acquired the financial capital that will enable a luxurious retired lifestyle in the country. The geographical location of real estate properties catering to migrants and their proximity to malls and leisurely establishments reveals the strategy employed in completing the sense of middle class accessibility to new luxuries now within their reach. These properties are characterized by gated subdivisions with guards on patrol, checkpoint in exit and entrance gates, and even having security cameras in place. The development of these gated villages into leisurely communities, having country clubs, resorts, and golf courses, have become a marker of privilege and social mobility for its residents and reflects the middle-class sensibilities that prize seclusion and security.

However, the disparity in the local perceptions of the balikbayan and their actual desires of homecoming are revealed in the process of their returns. Filomeno Aguilar notes that the migration journeys of Filipino migrants are continuously shaped by images of a ‘successful’ migrant, through securing their footing in their country of destination by means of acquiring a ‘green card’ or citizenship for those in the United States.[3] Yen Le Espiritu argues that because of the occupational, educational, and class advantages Filipino migrants in the United States are able to achieve, their migration journeys have come to be viewed as a ‘success story’, with the United States as the mythical ‘land of opportunity’.[4] Despite acquiring this status and mobility, Pido emphasizes that migrant returnees often find themselves in a state of ambivalence over being foreign and local at the same time. Many developers overestimate balikbayans’ preference for luxurious, duty-free imported items, and find their balikbayan clienteles opting for more traditional house fixtures that characterize the nostalgia associated with their childhood homes. Moreover, the actual costs of these retirement housing is exorbitant even for a balikbayan, hence, their preference to stay in a refurbished old home in their provinces. More importantly, the ‘balikbayan paranoia’ (p. 119), or the threat of crime and violence due to their new status as balikbayan often deters any plans of temporary visit, much less a return for good. These perceptions reflect the national rhetorics used to characterize Filipino migrants over the years.

Concurrent with the issue of return is the question of what is ‘home’ for the migrant. Owning a house is part of the Filipino dream, and for many migrants, a house is an embodiment of their fulfilled dreams through long and hard laboring in a place far from home. Aguilar argues that the act of building houses for Filipino migrants is a significant cultural marker that materializes their affective ties with their homeland.[5] These affective ties are often translated through monthly remittances, and housing constructions, therefore, serve as material manifestation of their efforts abroad. In any case of return, whether planned or not, migrant houses also serve as a home to return to. However, this is not without tension. Although the book has significantly glossed over the cultural significance of house building for migrants, he illustrates in Chapter 5, The Balikbayan House, how the act of house construction becomes a point of tension as the financing migrant supervises the construction from afar and can only assure the quality and integrity through visual photos and assurances of his/her family member. The tension ensues when one’s expectations are not met upon his return.

The creation of gated subdivisions that cater mostly to balikbayans has also created unequal geographical patterns of localization, where on the perimeters of the high walls of these communities, lie groups of informal settlers. Andre Ortega (2016) problematized the glaring contradiction posed by owning houses in gated communities by balikbayans whilst in the outside perimeter stood erect the shanty houses of families from lower socio-economic status. The visibility of high concrete walls barbed with wires creates a distinct image of security against the unwanted neighbors and their living practices. The obvious polarization of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are also reflected in their spatial proximity that while both inhabit the same area, there is a definitive boundary that dictates where one could cross, which if breached could result to legal violations. This ‘spatial governmentality’ allows for the indirect policing of undesirable behaviors of those who are not members of the exclusive residents of the gated community.[6]

While the book attempts to unravel the complexities of return(s), the discussions (in Part II: Returns) on the touristic performances of hotels targeting balikbayans, the constructions of a balikbayan house, and the Philippine Retirement Authority’s activities merely discuss the structural institutions that shape the experience of immediate returns. The book could have extended its explorations of the return experience of migrants for a much longer time to flesh out the functional dynamics of returns involving the families and their local communities, and how these are shaped by the environments where Filipino migrant returnees inhabit and move within them. For instance, a discussion on families and kin are absent, and the negotiations that normally take place in the process of returning are not thoroughly fleshed out (i.e. housing arrangements and governance of the vacant migrant houses, reintegration into the local community, establishment of businesses, and retirement plans). The discussion somehow ended with the immediate return of these migrants, and failed to track the processes they undergo in reintegrating themselves in the local community after their long absence. Moreover, a developing trend is the purchasing of condominium units in strategic locations in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, which are being leased by migrants to generate passive incomes. How do these developments tie with their ideations of returning for good, the expectations and the change in their status as providers for the family with the loss of employment and transition to retirement?

Overall, the book contributes to the discussion of return experiences that underscores the two-way dynamics occurring from both ends of the migration pathway. It opens the discourse of precarity that aging migrants are facing themselves in due to the uncertain global socio-economic and political developments. What the book enables is the imagining of future lives of migrants where home is not fixed, and how migrants negotiate their sense of home, belonging, and return in the era of ‘precarious modernity’ (p. 132).

Commission on Filipinos Overseas (n.d.) http://www.cfo.gov.ph/15-aboutcfo/programs-and-projects/2997-about-the-d..., accessed 31 January 2018.
Ortega, Arnisson Andre (2016) Neoliberalizing Spaces in the Philippines. Suburbanization, Transnational Migration, and Dispossession. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

[1] Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
[2] Specific program interventions include the ‘Business advisory circle’, ‘Diaspora investment’, ‘Diaspora philanthropy or Lingkod sa Kapwa Pilipino (LINKAPIL)’. The BaLinkBayan (a means to connect Filipino individuals and communities to the Philippines through the Diaspora to Development program) also offers options for Filipino migrants, overseas Filipino workers and retirees to invest in entrepreneurial activities in the country.
3] Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr., Migration Revolution. Philippine Nationhood and Class Relations in a Globalized Age, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2014.
[4] Yen Le Espiritu, Homebound. Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities and Countries, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2008, 7.
[5] Filomeno Aguilar, Labour migration and ties of relatedness: Diasporic houses and investments in memory in a rural Philippine village, Thesis Eleven 98(1), 2009: 88-114.
[6] Setha Low, Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, London and New York: Routledge, 2003.