Colonial pathways: Filipino migration to the United States

Colonial pathways: Filipino migration to the United States

By Bennett Sherry

Flows, waves, and swells

Migration is a little bit like water. We even use words like flow and waves to describe migration patterns. Like water, migrants tend to follow established paths. Of course, people move for all sorts of reasons—migration might be temporary, or it might be permanent. It might involve relocation to a more pleasant location, or it might be to escape a desperate situation. But—at large enough scales—the movement of people tends to settle into channels.

When there are connections between two locations—whether those connections are cultural, religious, or between governments or communities of people—migration is generally easier and much more likely. In particular, if an established community already exists in a destination country, it is much more likely that more migrants from the same country will settle there. They know they will arrive to find a base of support—a place where people speak their language and can advocate for their status.

Colonial connections

In the long nineteenth century, the expansion of industrial empires was one of the biggest drivers of migration patterns. Empires moved people around—settlers, traders, missionaries, soldiers, and others. But equally often, colonized people moved within empires to find better situations. Although their movement might have been restricted by inequitable laws, colonized people still often found that it was easier to move within the empire than to seek necessary travel papers needed to cross borders into other states or empires. Within this larger pattern, some colonial subjects found that the few pathways to success and prosperity open to them—whether in employment or education—flowed through the imperial center. This is one reason that many of the greatest anti-colonial leaders, such as India’s Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, attended universities in London.

The waves of independence movements launched by leaders like Gandhi and Kenyatta disrupted the ties that bound empire together. And yet, in many decolonized nations, once colonial governance had been stripped away, migration pathways remained intact. In Unit 8 of the AP® World History: Modern course, students are asked to explain the economic changes and continuities resulting from decolonization. One continuity they may find is that formerly colonialized peoples continued to migrate to the countries that once ruled their own. This continuity helped maintain cultural and economic connections through the changes of decolonization. The story of Filipino migration to the United States is an illustrative example of this process.

Filipino migration: An illustrative example

If your students were paying close attention in Unit 6, they’ll already know that the history of Filipino migration to the United States started before there was a United States. In Unit 6, students encountered a primary source collection that contains a primary source document and pictures of Saint Malo, the first permanent Filipino settlement in what is now the US state of Louisiana. The settlement was established in 1763 by Filipino sailors who deserted the Spanish galleons they served on as forced labor. They built stilt houses, and by the nineteenth century they had established a thriving fishing and shrimping industry in the area. The fishermen encouraged more Filipino sailors to join their community. They sent money to their families, many of whom settled in nearby New Orleans, then also ruled by Spain.

OER Project’s AP® World History, Unit 6, primary-source collection on migrationOER Project’s AP® World History, Unit 6, primary-source collection on migration. By WHP, CC BY 4.0.

The Spanish Empire controlled the Philippines until the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the United States annexed the islands. What followed was a brutal war of colonization, after which large-scale immigration from the Philippines to the US began. From 1906 to 1932, over 150,000 Filipinos migrated to the US. About half of them went to Hawaii to work in sugarcane farming, and most of the rest traveled to California to work on fruit and vegetable farms. Like the Philippines, Hawaii had been annexed by the United States in 1898. As part of the American overseas empire, people from the Philippines were treated as US nationals for purposes of migration. That made relocation to the US relatively simple and safe.

In the 1930s, the US government began the gradual process of recognizing the Philippines’ independence. However, this also meant that after 1935, Filipinos were no longer counted as US nationals but rather as foreign aliens. New restrictive immigration laws and the Great Depression combined to slow the flow of Filipino migration to a trickle. The Philippines achieved independence during the wave of decolonization after the Second World War. When the Philippines won independence in 1946, immigration of Filipinos to the US began to increase, with over 34,000 migrants arriving between 1946 and 1965.

the Philippines flag is raised as the US flag is lowered in Manilla.On July 4, 1946, the Republic of the Philippines achieved full independence. In this photo, the Philippines flag is raised as the US flag is lowered in Manilla. © Bettmann / Getty images.

After 1965, US immigration law changed, eliminating discrimination based on country of origin, and Filipino immigration numbers swelled. Many of the new arrivals were admitted thanks to petitions from family members already living in the US. From 1965 to 1988, over 800,000 Filipinos immigrated to the US. In the 1980s, Filipinos were consistently among the largest number of immigrants arriving in this country.

Today, there are over 4.2 million Filipino Americans, mostly concentrated around urban centers in California and Hawaii, but also in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. The US has the largest population (by several million) of Filipino people outside of the Philippines. When Filipino migrants began arriving in the US over a century ago, almost all of them worked in grueling agricultural jobs. Today, that picture has changed dramatically. In 2018, Filipino immigrant households in the US had a median annual income of $93,000—over $30,000 more than the average American household. The vast majority of new immigrants—81%—come to the US and receive green cards thanks to family already living here.

Decolonization continuities

Large-scale migration is often made possible thanks to the efforts of first-wave migrants and by the cultural, economic, and social ties they foster. These early generations of migrants make it easier for later migrants to make the journey. When they arrive, immigrants find ready communities and familiar social structures and support. The spread of industrial empires all over the world in the long nineteenth century increased the speed, extended the range, and changed the patterns of global migration flows. Decolonization certainly changed many facets of life and governance around the world. Yet the paths and patterns established by generations of colonized people migrating throughout empires ensured that many continuities persisted. The choices of migrants continue to propel many economic and demographic structures in our world today.

As your students consider empire and decolonization as two factors that shaped global migration patterns, you might have them reflect on the immigrant history of your own community. What historical or current immigrant communities are prominent in your town or region? What factors pushed and pulled those migrants as they chose that place as their home?

About the author: Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century and is one of the historians working on the OER Project courses.

Cover image: Participants march up Madison Avenue holding Philippine flags during the annual Philippine Independence Day Parade. © Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.