The Villanueva Children
Credit: Courtesy

Wander far enough into the mists of time and you’ll find yourself in that unrecognizable place called the 1990s, where pundits celebrated the end of history and the increased speed of economic globalization, which promised to flood us all with milk and honey. The United States would lead a unipolar world. Europe would live in peace and harmony. National boundaries would dissolve. Extremist ideologies were destined for extinction.

A Good Provider Is One
Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century
by Jason DeParle
Viking, 400 pp.

Now history is back, the U.S. is building walls and concentration camps on its borders, and a far-right backlash against liberal democracy has spread across the Western world, from Viktor Orban’s strongholds in the Buda Hills to the plains of northwest Iowa, where Representative Steve King holds sway. 

What happened?

There were seismic events, certainly, including the Bosnian conflict (which suggested that “the West” wasn’t committed to defending liberal ideals, even in the heart of Europe); the September 11 attacks (which disabused Americans of their post–Cold War sense of invulnerability); and the 2008 financial collapse (which discredited the liberal economic order). But playing out in the background for the past quarter century has been that corollary of increased economic globalization: the cross-border movement of people at an unprecedented scale, a phenomenon that has served as a stress test of Western popular commitment to liberalism. It’s a test that many societies don’t appear to be passing. Britain voted to leave the European Union in large part to put an end to the influx of Poles, Romanians, and other EU citizens from the East. The backlash to a flood of Syrian and Iraqi war refugees paved the way for the xenophobic far right to enter the German parliament. The end of race-minded immigration policies in the United States in 1965 has made for a more vibrant and cosmopolitan country, but also fueled a nativist counter-reaction that lifted an authoritarian-minded ethno-nationalist to the presidency of our nation of immigrants. Never, therefore, has it been so important to understand migrants, not just as an aggregate force transforming the world, but as fellow humans striving to protect and provide for their families.

It’s our good fortune that Jason DeParle, a George Polk Award–winning reporter for the New York Times, embedded with a family of Manila slum dwellers thirty-three years ago and has kept contact with them ever since, even as he covered poverty and migration around the world. DeParle’s decades-long friendship with the Portagana clan enabled him to do something remarkable in his new book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: tell the story of global migration through the experiences of a single migrant family over three generations in intimate, often eyewitness detail. It’s a journey that starts in a one-room shanty open to rats and rain and ends on a cul-de-sac in a newly constructed Texas City subdivision. Their story will leave you better understanding how the world works today and where we’re likely headed.

Worldwide, the number of migrants has jumped by nearly 50 percent since the turn of the century to a staggering 258 million, and they are supporting at least as many family members back in their home countries. Migration has become the world’s largest antipoverty program, DeParle notes, sending $477 billion a year to the developing world, or three times the world’s combined foreign aid. In some countries, remittances—the money migrants send or take back home—amounts to more than a quarter of the gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. In Kyrgyzstan, South Sudan, and Tonga, it’s more than a third.

Among large countries, the Philippines presents a remarkable case, as its government trains, markets, and lionizes its overseas workers, who account for one in seven of its 105 million citizens and 10 percent of GDP. There’s an entire industry devoted to recruiting, representing, and placing maids, sailors, nurses, and construction workers with employers in Japan, the Middle East, and North America. The title of DeParle’s book is a Portagana family saying, but it might as well be the Philippines’ national motto. It’s a country where upwardly mobile children are those being raised by relatives because their parents are overseas for years on end, earning many times the salary they could ever hope for at home.

In 1986, DeParle, then a young New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter on a Henry Luce Foundation scholarship, moved in as a boarder with forty-year-old Tita Portagana Comodas, her five children, and assorted relatives. He was studying shanty-towns, and Tita’s family lived in one: Leveriza, a labyrinthine slum of 15,000 built on a Manila Bay mudflat. Toilets were a luxury item. “Sanitation mostly meant ‘flying saucers,’ bundles of waste wrapped in newspaper and flung in the surrounding canals,” DeParle writes. Tita made petty cash selling eggs, but the family was really supported by her husband, Emet, who cleaned pools as a guest worker in Saudi Arabia. Emet was missing much of his kids’ childhoods, and wanted to return home, but by bitter experience learned he could not properly support them on what he could earn in Manila.

It was a pattern that played out over the next generation. After DeParle finished his year-long stint in Leveriza (an experience he wrote about for this magazine in 1987), Tita’s children grew up, and most of them began working as overseas guest workers themselves. Via letters and, later, Facebook and Skype, they watched their own children grow up thousands of miles away; eventually, most of their kids were able to move from scrap-wood shanties to cinder-block ones with toilets, and, finally, to proper homes away from Leveriza. 

The central protagonist of the book, Tita’s daughter Rosalie, got a nursing degree, one of the most valuable credentials in the Philippines, which intentionally trains hundreds of nurses annually for export to wealthier, aging places that need them. DeParle follows her stoic, determined ascent, which brings her to hospitals in Saudi Arabia in 1996, Abu Dhabi in 2004, and, in 2012, Galveston, Texas, where her nurse’s salary ultimately allows her family—a husband and three children—to reunite under their own roof in a Galveston suburb. 

It’s the American Dream story, but with all the warts. Rosalie and her kin struggle with their various foreign environments, native coworkers, and each other. Multiyear separations take tolls on marriages, children, and grandparents. Unscrupulous creditors, agents, and employers add to the stress and even take the leg of Rosalie’s cousin, Manu, maimed in an accident while working aboard a cruise ship and left in precarious circumstances by the liability limitations in his exploitative labor contract. 

In Texas, DeParle must have re-embedded with Rosalie’s family for long stretches; readers are afforded a revealing fly-on-the-wall view of each family member’s assimilation strategies and struggles over the better part of a decade. Her three kids have divergent personalities, from earnest and studious to social and flighty, and confront the challenges of adapting to their new world—and life with previously half-known parents—in distinct and often touching ways. Through DeParle’s eyewitness account, as well as through Facebook posts, diary entries, and the contents of school essays, we see many events unfold. Rosalie’s family opened up their world to DeParle, to readers’ enormous benefit. 

DeParle buttresses his narrative with cogent summaries of the scholarly research on migration and its effects, including the great debate over whether immigrants threaten U.S. jobs and wages. The consensus, he reports, is that they may slightly depress low-skilled workers’ wages but help grow the economy overall, ensuring that farms, hotels, hospitals, and Silicon Valley companies have the workers they need. In terms of fiscal costs, the National Academy of Sciences reckons that first-generation immigrants represent a net gain in federal revenues—they pay more taxes than they collect in benefits—but a net cost on cities and states, primarily for schooling. In the second generation, however, that investment pays off for states as well, especially if the kids go on to college. Rosalie arrived with a college education, and DeParle estimates that her family and their descendants will provide federal, state, and municipal governments a $2.5 million boost over the next seventy-five years.

The real political challenge, he writes, is cultural, rather than economic—“the fear that assimilation is failing (that we’re conforming to them),” and that Skype and cheaper air travel have made it too easy for migrants to live in two worlds at once. If so, Rosalie’s family provides a counterpoint. Despite keeping in constant virtual contact with Tita, Emet, and other family members back home, Rosalie’s teenagers are clearly Americans by the book’s end, more comfortable speaking English than their native Tagalog and seeing the Philippines—not Texas—as exotic. Even Rosalie herself, on a recent family visit to Manila, brightens as she returns to the airport. “I feel like I’m going to my home,” she says. “The U.S. is my home.”

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Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and the author of six books of history, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of
North America.