There is a caravan of an estimated 4,000 men, women and children from Central America hiking hundreds of miles from their home countries to Mexico and from there to the United States. The “invasion” is one of the main themes of the alarmist rhetoric of President Donald Trump in his desperate effort to drive his voter base to the polls to save the Republican party from decimation in the November 6 mid-term elections.
To spice up his horror stories, Trump has added on the lie that “Middle Eastern terrorists” are mixed in with the refugees, warning that this could mean a wave of bombings and killings once the caravan crosses over into US territory.
In truth, the refugees are planning to seek asylum in America, a legal process that US immigration laws allow. Of course, a large percentage of those seeking asylum are subsequently disapproved and are either forced to return to their homelands or to seek refuge elsewhere. They are reminiscent of the thousands of Vietnamese boat people who fled their country following the fall of Saigon. The refugees may also be likened to the thousands who fled Cuba, after Fidel Castro’s revolucionarios took over Havana.
Mercifully, Trump has not also claimed that Filipino illegal aliens are also among the refugees. However, the spectacle of thousands desperately trying to enter the US has given rise to the joke that if Pinoys could walk on water, a large percentage of the 100 million-plus Filipino population would make their way to America, too, as well as to Canada, Australia, Europe and the wealthier countries in Asia.
Faraway places with strange sounding names — as the lyrics of the song go — have always held a fascination for our people. The reason is that, to use well-worn clichés, the grass always looks greener on the other side, and America and the other great cities of the world are perceived as “lands of milk and honey.”
Some 10 million Pinoys are said to be working overseas, and this number probably does not include the 4 to 5 million naturalized citizens, green card holders and TNT’s (Tago Nang Tago) in the US. The reason for the diaspora is mainly economic. Not enough jobs and not enough wages to feed the family are said to be the principal motivation for wanting to work overseas.
Of course, many eventually realize that they could have been much better off at home in the Philippines, back in their native provinces, if they had been willing to work as hard as they are forced to work in strange lands, just to be able to survive. For some, this is in addition to the harsh treatment that they have to bear under their foreign task masters.
Quite frankly, the situation is not as bad in the Philippines as the usual critics (mainly fellow Pinoys) portray it. Aside from the advantage of having families and friends to run to, anyone willing to work with his hands can actually scrape up enough to live on in the provinces (surviving in Metro Manila is another matter altogether).
But even the hardships in Manila are not as bad as the reasons for the horde of refugees fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, wanting to seek asylum in America.
In a June 2018 article for the Atlantic, journalist Sofia Martinez wrote: “The killing of a loved one. An attempt at gang recruitment. A rape. Harassment by a police officer. A death threat over an outstanding extortion payment. Amid the justified uproar at the Trump administration’s policies on America’s southern border, often lost are the reasons many Central Americans leave their homes, and are prepared to brave the perils of the journey north, in the first place. Families arriving at the border from countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala leave behind a myriad of stories, many of them connected to their homelands’ plague of armed violence.”
For sure, the Philippines is not the land of opportunity that America is, but neither is it the killing fields that the refugees from Central America characterize their homelands. And while President Rodrigo Duterte has been portrayed by his critics as a murderous monster, with former PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa as a blood-thirsty executioner, the Philippines is a whole lot safer than those countries that the fear-stricken members of the US-bound caravan are fleeing from.
According to media reports, families in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are caught between two deadly groups. On one side are such gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (the MS-13 that Trump has been telling doomsday stories about) and, on the other side, are the police, specifically the anti-gang task forces.
The police are said to indiscriminately round up young men in poor areas, in the government’s efforts to contain the gangs. If this reminds you of the tokhang in the early months of Duterte’s war on drugs, you wouldn’t be wrong. Indeed, so many bloody crimes are committed by the authorities in the name of “restoring peace and order.”
On the other hand, it is said that the Central American gangs have become so pervasive and powerful that the police and government authorities privately admit that they are no match for the criminals. These gangs are constantly recruiting boys and forcing them into lives of crime or are making sex slaves of young girls.
The Atlantic article relates how, in countries like El Salvador and Honduras, “parents living in what are popularly known as ‘red zones’ — usually communities plagued by gangs — have to spend hard-earned money on private transport or after-school programs to avoid their kids coming into contact with criminal groups.”
The article quotes the parents: “It’s really complicated for us [the parents]… because we need to work more hours to pay for the security of our children and also spend enough time at home to talk with them and make sure they are not hanging out with the wrong people.”
“In El Salvador,” the article continues, “where there are around 65 thousand active gang members, with a social support base of half a million people, boys from 12 years up are prime targets for recruitment. Girls can also be targeted at an early age, either to be sexually abused or to become gang members. The eventual fate of a girl — whether she is left alone, harassed into joining the gang, or forced into becoming a sex slave — depends entirely on the local leaders, or palabreros, who run the local cells or clicas (cliques) of the two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.”
In sum, we Filipinos are so much better off, in spite of our meager means and in spite of official corruption and incompetence, than the unfortunates in Central America — and in other parts of the world. I once wrote in a documentary script that the Philippines is so rich in natural resources that if we throw a net into the sea, we will catch a fish, and if we stick a seedling into the soil, we will grow food to eat. We just need to use our head, work hard and (as I said in an earlier column) be willing to plant kamote.
In other words, we don’t need to be able to walk on water.
Comparing the plight of our fellow Filipinos to that of the people in Central America, I am reminded of a saying I chanced upon in Cursillo: “I complained because I had no shoes… until I saw a man who had no feet.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.