Last year, on Christmas Day, I was doing a puzzle with my parents and brother in Galveston, Texas, when I pulled out my phone to show them something from an old piece I’d written at The Hairpin and saw, on the first page of the Google search, that the Red Scare subreddit (“of all places”) had dug up an old news story about a devastatingly serious criminal case that my parents were at the center of in the last half of the last decade. I left the house without explaining myself, took a long walk, and by the time I came back I had decided, again, that there was nothing to be gained by seeking out what people I don’t know were saying about me on the internet: it was damaging and compulsive behavior if those things were wonderful—I had searched my name on Twitter for a couple weeks when my book came out and then stopped, understanding that I had waded into narcissistic quicksand—and it was certainly damaging and compulsive behavior in this instance, too.
But my mom, being a proud and loving mother who likes to send stories about me to her friends, has searched my name online regularly for years, despite my protests. She recently alerted me to the fact that details about their case had been added to my Wikipedia page. A post was circulating on Tumblr about it, and on Twitter—this was the week that quarantine boredom escalated to the point that on Monday people were trying to “get” Mitski and Arca for their parents being (respectively) CIA and wealthy, and by Friday everyone was rejoicing in what passed for an Alison Roman scandal—people were posting about how my parents were human traffickers. The vibe was that this was some sort of wild, ironic gotcha. Here I was, a writer who had made a whole thing of being concerned with public morality, who had managed to project some aura of decency and transparency, and my parents were—as far as anyone who’d come across this juicy nugget was concerned—international criminals who had built their lives off exploiting other people, off their suffering and pain.
Over the following week it was made clear to me that more and more people were discussing this situation as a reputational time bomb that was going to be especially exciting to see go off. I began getting tagged in tweet threads about the matter. When a kind friend deleted the line from my Wikipedia page, out of concern for my family, it was added again nearly immediately. More people tagged me into conversations about my hypocrisy. I’m aware that writing this will bring my parents’ lives to the attention of many more people than would have otherwise cared to gossip about the matter, but, given the weight of the circumstances, I’d rather go ahead and explain.
Around the time I was born, my grandmother founded an agency placing nurses from the Philippines in U.S. hospitals that were experiencing a skilled labor shortage. (This is an extremely common migration pattern for Filipinos—I recommend Jason DeParle’s “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves,” on the subject!—with about eleven percent of the Philippines’ total population working overseas.) Soon after, she and a business partner began placing Filipino teachers in U.S. schools, too. When my family moved down to Houston from Toronto in 1993, my dad joined the company, which continued to bring nurses and teachers over through a lawful process, typical of the many recruitment agencies of this kind. Specifically, on the side of the teacher program, the company sponsored school district personnel to travel to the Philippines and meet with qualified teachers who they might be interested in hiring; the school districts identified the workers they wished to hire, and the company began the lengthy process of bringing them to the States with H1B visas—filing a petition, waiting for approval and issuance. In 2003, ten years after my dad began working for the company, a school district in Texas declined to hire a batch of teachers to whom they had previously extended job offers. Crucially, the company was not informed of the change of plans until after the teachers had already traveled to the States. My dad worked to get those teachers re-hired in other districts, and placed all but four of them successfully. ICE, then a brand-new agency with a directive to protect America from illegal immigration, investigated the displaced teachers, whose visa petitions bore the name of the school district that had extended the job offers before declining, rather than the school districts where they eventually worked.
In 2004, to their horror, my parents were charged with a battery of things that, if they were found guilty, would add up to over a hundred years in prison for each of them: the counts included alien smuggling, harboring and transporting aliens, conspiracy to defraud the government, money laundering, and more. The company’s open, earnest, lawful work helping fellow Filipinos move to America for good jobs in teaching had been swiftly reframed as hideous criminal activity. (Seeing people on the internet gleefully call my parents “human traffickers” has been a reminder of the vast, brutal gap between those initial charges and the reality they purported to describe—a gap in which my parents have to live every day.) My parents shielded me as best they could: I got an inkling that they were being surveilled when I started hearing clicks on the house phone line while I was talking to my friends. My dad was arrested that fall, and detained in solitary confinement. He was able to call me on my sixteenth birthday, which was the first I’d heard from him in months. I grasped that the situation I thought couldn’t be happening was actually happening. I remember holding the phone at the Italian restaurant my mom had taken me to, and starting to cry.
The years that followed—and I say this fearing that it will hurt my parents, but not knowing any simpler way to put it—essentially destroyed them. My mom and dad were Filipino-born Canadian citizens; this was Texas in the years following the Patriot Act, and basic human and constitutional rights did not seem to be granted to brown non-Americans accused of such serious crimes. (It’s been interesting, in observing the gossip about this, to see the way many white people implicitly see criminality as a status that is only achieved through egregious, malicious actions; many black and brown people understand that this is not at all the case.) Everything my parents had was permanently seized through forfeiture; my dad was tortured, if you believe solitary confinement is torture, which it is. I spent much of college wondering if I would have to quit school any second to raise my little brother. My parents borrowed money from friends and went deep into debt to hire lawyers to defend them at a trial that finally began in 2007. The charges hinged on the school district’s allegation that my dad had known that the teachers’ jobs were rescinded before helping them travel to the States—an allegation that spared the district a significant amount of civil and financial liability, and framed my dad as an alien smuggler. It was also untrue: no actual documentary evidence was produced to support it. Two months later, after nearly two hundred witnesses were called against the company, the judge declared a mistrial.
At that point, the whole process began again. My parents, drained of resources, got court-appointed advocates who advised my dad to take a plea deal. My mom didn’t want him to; she wanted to go to trial again and clear their name. But they were suffering. My brother was in middle school, and my parents were driving thirteen hours each way to and from El Paso, where their court case took place, almost every week. After a year, my dad made the decision to take the deal. The charges against my mom—who had only worked in local nurse recruitment, not teacher recruitment—were dismissed, and my dad pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Specifically, he admitted to making a false statement to a government official, meaning that the paperwork for the displaced teachers’ visas ended up being inaccurate. There was an irony to this: my dad had exposed himself legally by trying to find a solution to the displaced teachers’ plight, working to get them re-hired in different districts. If he had left the teachers to figure out their awful situation on their own, his legal position would have been stronger. But he would never have done that. This years-long ordeal culminated with my dad getting a few months’ probation for his plea.
This is a story about my parents, not about me. I wasn’t physically present for almost any of this; I’ve reconstructed the story not just through talking to my parents but through reviewing documents in consultation with immigration lawyers. I also haven’t suffered in any way worth speaking about: in fact I think that a lot of my calmness, my capability, my sense of wild individual good fortune, comes from witnessing their ordeal. (I also was never, as some have speculated, a beneficiary of dirty millions: almost my entire time in school was made possible by full scholarships, and although I grew up happy and cared for, never lacking for opportunity, the first year of my sentient life that I didn’t worry about money on a near-daily basis was 2014.) But it’s been my desire for a long time to understand the genesis of their prosecution, the resources spent by the state on their case. I’ve wanted to report the story out in its proper political context for a long time. I asked my parents if I could write about their story in my book: originally, the reality TV essay was going to be about the disjunction between my central-casting teen blitheness and what was happening in the background—on the plane to Puerto Rico, I drafted a pathetic handwritten letter begging for a pardon from the Presidential administration that had created the legal atmosphere that had facilitated all of this in the first place. My dad, surely with deep reservations, granted me permission. But my mom felt that, in the current political environment, there could be tangible repercussions for resurfacing this part of their history.
Of course, I realized she was right and respected her wishes: I did not write about them, or bring up this history in interviews. Instead I became intensely aware of the possibility that my attempts to find some stability in my life, for my own sake and ultimately for theirs, would end up re-traumatizing them, resurfacing all this sublimated shame. This appears to have already happened. But I’m not ashamed, anyway: only sad, really sad, to see their case turn into some simulacrum of juicy gossip among internet strangers who appear to be as baffled or bemused or put off by my recent successes as I myself have been. I don’t have the emotional capacity to be angry about it; I mostly wish I weren’t so far away from my family right now. I wish that I could write long paragraphs here about my parents as the people close to them know them, about the generosity and good faith and loyalty and love and courage and humility they have always modeled, without knowing that this would be interpreted as deflection.
Still, this moment is an intense one for me. My life—my independence, the opportunities I found and hung onto—was one of the only things in my parents’ universe that the case hadn’t degraded. My sense of personal freedom is one of the few things they’ve worked for that’s gone completely right. I wanted them to see that life, that freedom, untouched, for as long as they could. And they did. Now—as always, because they’re my parents—they are still more worried about me than about themselves. I’ve never really been able to communicate, no matter how many ways I tell them, how grateful I am for the bone-deep familiarity with injustice that I acquired through watching what happened to them. Their case solidified my ethical commitments; it clarified my understanding of power, of truth and complication. I learned from their life trajectory, as I had to. And I hope, one day, under a different administration, that I get the chance to report it all out.
[Edited on 5/24/20 to add, though I’m not sure that those who have been tweeting the horrific claims of usury and threats and abuse in the first federal indictment are interested in actually understanding the court case: I have had fifteen years to reckon with the possibility that the Bush-era security apparatus was righteous and truthful and that my parents were inhumane and deceptive. I understand the argument that any business involving immigration is inherently unethical: this is part of why I want to report out what their company was actually like, interview the nurses and teachers they worked with. For now, I’ll just say what I wasn’t expecting might need articulation: I would never have written this if I believed—I would have cut my parents off years ago if any actual scrutiny of the full casework suggested—that these allegations, which disappeared from the case after they could not be upheld in court, were true.]