How One Family’s Story Shows the Impact of Global Migration

Book Cover: Jason DeParle

Over the weekend, New York Times senior writer Jason DeParle published a buzzy front page story looking at White House aide Stephen Miller’s “singular grip” on President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda. The report happened to come just days before the DeParle’s new book on the subject of migration was released. In A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century, the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist tells the story of global migration through the lens of one Philippino family, who he followed for 30 years. We chatted with DeParle on Tuesday (his pub day!) about the book. 

Your new book is the culmination of three decades of reporting. Why did you decide to tell the story of global migration through the lens of a specific family?
I was interested in the family story before I was interested in the broader issue of global migration. I initially met them not because I was thinking of migration but because I was interested in the conditions of shanty towns in the developing world. I moved into their home and was taken by their courage, their face, their resilience, their humor, and the great dignity with which they responded to a very difficult circumstance in life. 

That’s one powerful book title. Can you tell us what it means?
The quote came from a member of the extended family in the Philippines who wanted her husband to take a job in Saudi Arabia so the family could build a home. She told him, “A good provider is one who leaves,” which really became the unofficial motto of the family. The woman I moved in with was one of 11 siblings. In her generation, nine went abroad. This was a large extended family that was really relying on overseas earnings to sustain their families. The phrase captures the dilemma that to provide for their family, they had to leave them. 

The book tells the story of “guest workers” around the world — now predominantly women — who leave their countries to support their families. What impact does this have on families?
The first generation of Filipinos who went abroad starting in the ‘70s and ‘80s were largely men. They were going to the Persian Gulf, many of them were doing construction work. Saudi Arabia was booming with petrol dollars, and they were building airports and freeways. With the second generation, from the late ‘80s up until today, migration has feminized — in part because the jobs across the world have feminized. People are going abroad as caregivers, nannies, and domestic workers. It’s had a profound effect on the Filipino family, and families in many poor countries, because the women who go abroad often leave children behind, sometimes for many years at a time. They have to learn the challenges of long distance parenting.

Another thing that you point out is that people like Rosalie in your book, who are in the country legally, is a more common reality in American immigration than what’s currently going on at the border. Can you explain why that is? What aspects of contemporary immigration are people largely getting wrong?
The news coverage of immigration in the United States tends to be dominated by a focus on illegal immigration. Obviously the humanitarian crisis at the border deserves all the attention it gets — it’s a very important issue — but it tends to obscure the larger story of migration. Three-quarters of the people in the United States are here legally, and migration is no longer as it once was predominantly a story about poor people. Lots of people come to the United States now middle class or high skilled, as Rosalie did. I think Rosalie’s story is one missing from lots of press coverage and certainly one missing from the president’s Twitter feed.

So how does contemporary immigration line up with the days of Ellis Island? And how is it different?
In both cases, you had rapid demographic change — large numbers of people coming from abroad and lots of concerns among Americans about whether they could fit in. One difference is that in the past a migrant was mostly a poor person from Europe living in a big city. Today, migrants come from all over the world — predominantly not from Europe — and they go everywhere. Migration is no longer concentrated in a few gateway cities. Half the immigrants in the country live in the suburbs, and they’re scattered across the South. Economically, they’re just much more mixed. 

Aside from the book, you also recently wrote a front-page feature for the New York Times on Stephen Miller and immigration. What sort of influence is he having on Trump’s immigration policies?
Stephen Miller has a rare degree of control over a single issue. It’s rare in the White House that one person would have so much influence on the legislative agenda, the public messaging agenda, the personnel, the regulatory writing, the presidential speechmaking. He’s consolidated control over the president’s signature issue to a really remarkable degree. He and the president, I think, have the same instinct about immigration, which is to oppose it. What Miller has that Trump doesn’t is the savvy to operationalize those instincts, to codify them, to put them into rules and regulations.

What do you hope is the biggest takeaway from your book?
I hope people will come to admire the courage and grace of this family as much as I did. Whatever your thoughts are on immigration — and whether you think American should have a lot of immigrants, a few immigrants, one kind of immigrant, or another, beyond the policy — I hope people can appreciate the resilience, the dignity and the faith that brought this family from a shanty town in Manilla to a Houston suburb, and have some appreciation of what a vast transformation migration has meant in their lives. I think it’s good for your country to be the place people go to make dreams come true.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.