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book review

Jason DeParle offers an immersively reported reflection on contemporary migration

mark wang for The Boston Globe

A young reporter in Manila wanted to live as a Filipino, preferably in a slum. A 40-year-old woman was willing to take him in. Thus began the education of New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, thus began a decades-long friendship, and thus began a remarkable book.

The United States has 44 million immigrants — more than the entire population of Canada and, as DeParle tells us, “it’s no exaggeration to say their future is America’s.”  But migration also shapes countries around the world, the places migrants leave as much as the places where they settle, often temporarily, sometimes permanently.

“Migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit: the civil religion,” DeParle argues. More than a million people leave the country every year, and in examining the phenomenon at close range, DeParle himself was transformed from journalist to student of migration. “I wasn’t thinking about migration when I arrived in Leveriza,” he writes of his perch in the Philippines. “I was thinking about rats and eggs, about people...endure such hopeless poverty. Migration was part of the answer.”

This three-decade journey took him to that Filipino home and to periodic visits with the family in the Philippines, Abu Dhabi, Florida and Texas. “This was immersion journalism,” he wrote. “I immersed.”


In the course of this tutorial in migration, DeParle saw that all of Tita Comodas’s five children became overseas workers and he came to understand, perhaps even to endorse, the unofficial family creed: A good provider is one who leaves. Thus the otherwise inscrutable title of this indispensable book, a Baedeker to an unnoticed and largely unappreciated global phenomenon, and a guide to understanding not only the flow of people worldwide but also the tensions that infuse politics worldwide.

This may be a portrait of Tita’s world, but it is also the portrait of the world today — a world, DeParle shows us, that is in profound transformation as millions seek to better their lives.


“My study of the global poor shrank to a sample size of one,” he writes. “I was absorbed by Tita and her world.”

But the book’s real personification of these sweeping changes is Tita’s daughter Rosalie, a 15-year-old C student when DeParle met her, and a 48-year-old Texas nurse now: “She never crossed a border illegally. She doesn’t sport gang tattoos. To the challenges of assimilation, she brings advantages the poor and unauthorized lack. She’s the kind of immigrant who’s become invisible in the political debate, yet increasingly common.”

In these pages DeParle offers us a brisk history of immigration and immigration policy and wise reflections on contemporary migration. “The average immigrant a century ago was a penniless European in a big city,” he writes. “Now the foreign born are economically diverse, ethnically varied, and geographically scattered.”

Indeed, he’s a historian in seeing the process with a centuries-long perspective — he notes that Benjamin Franklin called the German immigrants of the mid 18th century the “most ignorant Stupid Sort”  — but is a journalist with a reporter’s eye on contemporary events, seeing how corruption, poverty, and violence spur great waves of migration.

Fleeing war and woes, migrants are changing our world both literally and metaphorically, and the evidence may be sturdiest in the Philippines. By 1871, Filipino workers were in 108 countries. DeParle’s preoccupation is to tell their 21st century stories.


As a result, this book is a journey: on foot, in planes and on cruise ships, to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, Taiwan, Canada, and Hong Kong. With DeParle as tour guide, the reader discovers that the phenomenon of migration is not only a transfer of people but also a transfer of money.

“The case for migration as a development tool starts with the migrants’ loyalty,” he writes. The workers leave, the money goes home. Mexicans in the United States send a third of their salaries home, Senegalese in Spain send half. “Since the money bypasses the government, it is less susceptible to corruption that foreign aid,” he explains. “It’s also counter-cyclical; private investors pull back in bad times, but migrants send more.”

But while migration eases poverty it doesn’t boost countries’ GNP. “Migration hasn’t enlarged the Philippine economy,” he writes, “but it’s enlarged the incomes of millions of Filipinos.”

These journeys are not endeavors of ease. DeParle shows us that they are full of peril: fears of false and real failure, disorientation and disappointment, visa problems and health threats. Families split geographically are split psychologically as well. Technology helps and hurts: “Webcams don’t replace mothers,” he reminds us. That’s especially true when the migrants are rearing other people’s children.

As the pages turn — as the book develops — the focus turns as well, bringing into sharp relief the issue of immigration to the United States, and here the story turns from heartbreaking to heartening. DeParle understands what he calls the “moral hazard”  posed by amnesty for the undocumented. He also sees challenges faced by the new immigrants that makes assimilation more challenging: “[E]conomic mobility has waned; legal status is often an impediment; and most of today’s immigrants are racial minorities.”


But in the end he brings us back to Tita’s daughter, and his closing argument is a potent one: “Migration was her vehicle of salvation. It delivered her from the living conditions of the 19th century. It respected her talent, rewarded her sweat, and enlarged her capacity for giving. It made her life deeper, fuller, and more filled with hope... That her quest ended in Texas is something for Americans to cheer. It’s good for your country to be the place that people go to make dreams come true.”

In short, DeParle shows us, immigration was very, very good for her. But it’s also very, very good for us.

A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the the 21st Century

By Jason DeParle

Penguin, 400 pp., $28

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.