Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 12 September 2012


What drives people to migrate to other countries? What makes a Filipino want to pull up stakes in his homeland and transport his whole family or his own future to a new life in another country? What overriding consideration makes him decide to seek a temporary job abroad as an OFW (overseas Filipino worker)?

The answer to these questions is the wide disparity of incomes and opportunities between wages in the countries of intended migration and those available at home. While there are other motives, economic reasons dominate over other explanations most of the time.

“Filipino labor migration.” There are two types of labor migration. The first is via the route of acquiring permanent residency and eventual citizenship in a foreign country. The other is what is referred to as temporary labor migration. Here, labor migrants are on fixed term or temporary working permits. In today’s lingo, these are OFWs [overseas Filipino workers].

Filipino migrants: old and new. There are small ancient communities of Filipinos in Mexico, California and Texas who were descended from seafarers from the Spanish galleon trade, a commercial route between Mexico and the Philippines. We do not know whether these seamen were conscripted involuntarily or were voluntary jobseekers in shipping ventures.

The modern labor migrants to the US were those hired to work on plantations in Hawaii during American colonial times in early 1900s. Later, there were also migration flows of Filipino workers in California’s agricultural farms. Although these were cases of voluntary job seeking, some of those workers involved cases of “shanghaied” workers who found themselves bound for the Hawaiian plantations and later, those in California.

Over time, many of the descendants of these workers have integrated within the American social milieu. They have become Americans but they report themselves in censuses as being of ethnic Filipino origins.

Modern Filipino migration. Modern labor migration is essentially a voluntary circumstance. The wide disparity in labor market conditions is one way to look at this phenomenon. Filipinos who migrated to the US would become part of the Filipino ethnic presence in the American social milieu even as a colonial possession.

When we became politically independent in 1946, one means toward gaining immigrant status in the US for Filipinos was to have served in the US military. Indeed, many who did so during the Second World War applied for American citizenship thereafter and became Americans.

During the John F. Kennedy presidency (early 1960s), the US revised its immigration laws to admit larger volumes of Filipino migrants. This started a modern trek of new Filipino migration to the United States. Within three decades of this event, Canada and Australia followed suit with their own immigration liberalization laws that included admission of Filipinos as immigrants on the basis of quota.

Accounting for the Filipino stock in the world’s populations. The total number of Filipino migrants derived from various census reports of different countries, as reported by the Commission on Overseas Filipinos (CFO) is just under four million. This number is almost equivalent to the national population of Singapore, a nation of four million people.

Of the total Filipinos listed as immigrants in different countries, North America claims the largest group, about 3.2 million. Sixty-four percent of all Filipino migrants, or 2.6 million, are US citizens and about 14 percent of them are Canadians (or 554,000). Filipinos who have migrated to Australia comprise seven percent of all migrants (285,000) even as another 26,000 are scattered in other parts of Oceania (New Zealand and other Pacific islands).

There are other Filipino migrants to elsewhere .Two other regions where there are a substantial number of Filipino immigrants are found in Europe and in neighboring countries of East and Southeast Asia. But these are not as many. All in all, they account for 14.2 percent of all immigrants.

In Asia, Japan’s Filipino migrant population amounts to 146,000. The rest of the migrants are settled in Singapore (42,000), Malaysia (26,000) and Hong Kong (23,000).

Migration to Europe is of recent origin. The total number of Filipino migrants in Europe (312,400), however, exceed those who have gone to Australia. They are dispersed among several countries, the largest group being in the United Kingdom (91,900) and Italy (29,000). The migration to Europe is about 56 percent of the volume of migration to Canada.

Through a needle hole of strict qualifications. Countries admitting immigration implement a highly discriminatory policy. It is a sovereign act to dictate a country’s immigration policy.

The most obvious discrimination is ethnic or racial in the form of national quotas for countries. Filipinos go mainly to the high income nations with active immigration policies welcoming them. Most go to the United States, Canada and Australia. Filipino migration to the US is strongly reflected in the statistics.

The secondary but major barrier or standard used is the educational level of the primary migrant, the one whose decision starts the migratory flow of a given family unit. Educational attainment is a measure of the skill qualities of a person. Most migrations originate from the skill set offered by the primary migrant.

As a result of this selection criterion, most immigration policies tend to suck off the educated citizens of the countries of emigration. These are, incidentally, those that might have greater potential contribution to the development prospects of these countries. This phenomenon has been labeled as the “brain drain.”

Another route toward citizenship is financial qualification. Some countries require that migrants commit a substantial initial investment into the new country prior to any grant of resident status leading to citizenship. Since high income is highly correlated with high education, those who jump the migration stream to these countries are rich people whose wealth transfers away from their home country could be substantial.

Other types of migrations originate from marriage contracts. Marriage enables a new spouse to acquire the residency of the foreign partner. That is a path toward foreign citizenship. The spouse is allowed preferential residential or immigrant status on proof of marriage.

Migration for political and for religious reasons – the freedom of human rights argument – is important to other countries. Except during political upheavals – one could liken the Philippine martial law years as having induced some migration for political reasons – this is not an important reason for the Filipino migration.

The policies are highly selective in terms of educational and occupational qualifications of the principal migrant. Once that high bar had been attained, other factors like family relations – even generational provided they bring in only parents or unmarried siblings – become important. In this respect, these policies are very humane.

Net loss of capital. Migration implies a net loss of capital stock for the country of emigration. The typical migrant sells off his assets at home and takes the proceeds with him to the country of emigration. It is also a net loss of human capital – if the migrant is a doctor, an engineer, a successful or promising professional, he brings all his skills to the new home. One could go deeper: it nullifies the state’s investment in human capital for the potential services to the nation that such human talent and asset could have rendered.