By Leslie Razo
Mark Suarez came to the United States from his native Philippines in 2009. An undocumented immigrant, Suarez (not his real name) says he was duped into believing he had come legally.
“I was told that I would be working at an amusement park in Tennessee,” said Suarez, 40. Instead he was sent to Alabama along with nine other individuals, all of them left to fend for themselves.
“They told me to come … without any money because I was going to make a lot more here,” recalled Suarez. Instead, what he ended up with was no job and a sizable debt to the traffickers who arranged for his travel.
“The recruiting center would constantly harass my family about the money I owed them,” he said. “I just wanted to give my family a better life.”
Suarez, who came to the U.S. in 2009, is one of a large number of undocumented Filipinos living in the country illegally. According to the Migration Policy Institute, within the Asian community Filipinos account for the largest number of undocumented immigrants.
There are about 19,957 Filipinos and about 19,998 Cambodians in Long Beach, according to the U.S. Census.
And while a substantial number of these individuals might qualify for deportation relief – either through a T-Visa or through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – surprisingly few have come forward to take advantage of the opportunity.
Many are either unaware, or do not trust the authorities.
Thanks to the Filipino Migrant Center (FMC) in Long Beach, Suarez eventually learned that he is eligible to apply for what is known as a T-Visa. Available to victims of trafficking, a T-Visa allows holders to temporarily remain and work in the country legally in exchange for agreeing to assist authorities in identifying traffickers.
FMC works to educate and empower Filipinos who have been victims of human trafficking. Suarez said he never realized he was a victim of human trafficking until he arrived at the center.
Alex Montances is a community organizer with FMC. Noting that some 24 percent of the four million Filipinos in the United States are undocumented, he stressed that without a bridge of trust between those eligible for some kind of relief and the authorities, many would not apply.
Suarez agreed. “They’re afraid of coming out like I was,” he said. “It’s hard for them to trust someone when they’ve been lied to in the past.”
Rev. Nestor Gerente is a pastor with The United Methodist Church. He works closely with FMS and recently took two undocumented Filipino immigrants into his home after they had complained of being overworked and underpaid.
“Why would they come out now if they have been undocumented for ten years?” asked Gerente.
Those sentiments explain, in part, the low numbers of Filipinos who have turned out to apply for DACA.
The action grants temporary relief from deportation to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16. Efforts to expand DACA by eliminating the age cap and extend relief from two to three years are currently delayed in court trials. A similar measure, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) grants the same benefits to undocumented parents of U.S.-born children.
Figures show that only 4,000, or 26 percent, of eligible Filipino youths nationwide have submitted their applications for DACA, out of the 600,000 total applications to the program.
Chris Reyes, 29, is a Philippine native. His mom, an Air Force veteran, brought him to the United States as a child. Reyes is not undocumented, but he said he knows many in the community are and that they could benefit from DACA or T-Visas. More needs to be done to inform people about these opportunities, he added.
“A lot of Filipinos tune into The Filipino Channel (TFC),” explained Reyes, adding he has seen little reporting on DACA.“I know a lot of Filipinos watch this channel [and] I don’t think I’ve ever heard them mentioned it.”
Kamsorth Seoung, 37, is a Long Beach resident. He was 11 years old when he was rescued from the Khmer Rouge, and says that despite the fact that most Cambodians were brought as refugees, there are still a few undocumented Cambodians living in Long Beach.
Like Reyes, he says that most Cambodians rely on The Cambodian Network (TCN) for their daily news, where he says that DACA hasn’t been mentioned either.
“Most Cambodians came as refugees but there are a few that are still undocumented. I haven’t heard of DACA myself, and I don’t think that other Cambodians have either,” says Seoung.