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What 3 generations of a Filipino family prove about poverty and migration

For some families, ensuring economic stability requires a wrenching choice: to leave children behind and find work abroad. Author Jason DeParle has written a book, “A Good Provider is One Who Leaves,” that traces three generations of a single Filipino family as they move across the globe seeking a path out of poverty. He joins Amna Nawaz to discuss meeting the family and telling their story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On our Bookshelf tonight: one family's quest to escape crippling poverty the only way they could, by leaving their children behind to find work abroad.

    Amna Nawaz is back.

    She recently spoke with author Jason DeParle about his book "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves," tracing three generations of a single family across the world.

    DeParle begins by telling how he first met the family in the Philippines.

  • Jason DeParle:

    I was interested in life in shantytowns, not migration.

    Migration was the farthest thing from my mind. And I wanted to move in with a family and try to see slum life up close. And I found a family to move in with. And, actually, I went to a nun who lived in this community and asked her to help me find a family to live with.

    I thought she would go and screen families and take me to meet one, but instead she walked me through the shantytown and just sort of auctioned me off on the spot.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jason DeParle:

    First person she approached, the woman said, no, no, no. And the second one, no, no, no. And the third was too frightened to respond, and that was the one that I wound up moving in with.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And tell me about that family.

  • Jason DeParle:

    It turned out that, while I wasn't thinking of migration, migration was the way the family survived.

    It was a mother home with five kids, and her husband was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia, go off on two-year contracts, come back every two years, see the family for a month or two, then go back abroad. And she was raising the kids on the money he sent back, which was 10 times his Manila pay to do the exact same work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ten times his pay in Manila…

  • Jason DeParle:

    Ten times.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … to go live abroad in a different country and send money back?

  • Jason DeParle:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is Tita and Emmet, right?

  • Jason DeParle:

    Tita and Emmet Comodas, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

    And how unusual was that arrangement, the more you dug into it?

  • Jason DeParle:

    Tita was one of 11 kids. In her family, nine went abroad or had spouses who did. And now there's a second generation of cousins, 45 or so cousins, and maybe, I think, in the last count, 23 or 24 had gone abroad.

    The Philippines is the country in the world where the government does the most to promote migration. Remittances, the money that sent back, are 10 percent of the GDP. And migration to the Philippines is what cars were once to Detroit. It's the civic religion.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As you begin to dig into this, and you're spending sort of day-to-day life with this family, you're talking about a very big issue, right? It's migration. People travel all over the world and send remittances back.

    It's not just people from the Philippines. But what are you seeing day to day in terms of the impact it's having on the family? How does it affect how they live, how they relate to one another?

  • Jason DeParle:

    They were one of the few families in the slum area that — so, if you want a tangible example of what migration meant to them, it meant they could put a new roof on their house.

    It meant they could have better walls. It meant they could have indoor plumbing. Eventually, it meant that their middle daughter, Rosalie, the one I became closest to could afford, if barely, to go to nursing school. And that's what allowed her in turn to go abroad and eventually make it to the United States.

    So migration was more than a source of income. It was ultimately a vehicle for transformation or salvation for this family.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You talk too about putting the context — putting this family's experience in the context of sort of global migration, right? It's a very intimate look at this one family.

    But what did you learn sort of more largely about how and why people move?

  • Jason DeParle:

    The moment — I call it the lightbulb moment for me, when I really understood the importance of global migration, was when I discovered research that had shown remittances, the money that people send home, are three times the world's foreign aid budgets combined.

    Migration is the world's anti-poverty program. If you believe that people should get up and help themselves, that's what they do when they migrate. It had a profound impact, not only in the Philippines, but all across the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We are, of course, having a lot of national conversations about immigration right here in the United States.

    And I wonder, having followed this family over multiple generations, having sort of put them in the context of the way the rest of the world moves, how are you processing the conversations we're having here right now?

  • Jason DeParle:

    I think there's a lot of pessimism in the United States about the prospects for assimilation.

    I mean, certainly, on the part of people who don't like immigration, they will say, the problem is immigrants aren't assimilating the way they used to do. They're not learning English. They're not fitting in.

    But even among, I think, people who are middle of the road or even some somewhat supportive of immigration, they often worry, will this generation assimilate the way immigrants of the past did?

    And no one family can stand for everyone in a country of 44 million immigrants, but what I found was that, for this family and a substantial number of immigrants, the powers of American assimilation remain profound, formidable.

    I mean, this family achieved in three years the kind of assimilation that used to take three generations, a house in the suburbs, kids on the honor roll.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, in another interview, you were talking about this family's story, and you said, what you put — what you took away from their story personally was that immigration in America is actually working much better; immigration as a whole is working much better than a lot of people give it credit for.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Jason DeParle:

    Well, as I say, there's 44 million immigrants. So everybody's got a different story, and one can't stand for everyone.

    But I think we have been so focused on illegal immigration and on the crisis of the border — at the border, that we have forgotten that three-quarters of the immigrants in the country are here legally.

    Among new immigrants — our image of immigration is often still one of Latino immigration, whereas, among new immigrants, Asians dominate. Most come middle class now. The majority have college degrees. The majority live in the suburbs among new immigrants.

    So I think it's — the reality is often very different than the crisis coverage that drives so much of the news cycle.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves."

    Jason DeParle, thank you very much for being here.

  • Jason DeParle:

    Thank you.

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