Women's Migration Crossing between Legality and Illegality & Labor and Marriage
“Meeting the Migrant Women that Left”: Rachel, a Filipina and former industrial trainee
*This series on women who came to Korea through marrying Korean men and left, “Meeting the Migrant Women that Left,” is sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund. The writer of this article, Ra Kyum Wee, is a researcher at Jeonnam Foundation of Women and Family.
Rachel’s Bag Contains the History of Korea’s Immigration Policies
One of the concerns that my team had when we began researching in the native countries of these migrant women who returned was whether we would be able to find a woman who would agree to be interviewed. We’d expected to be able to reach out to women who had received help from Korea’s migrant women counseling centers or shelters in the past, but most of them didn’t keep in contact with the organizations after returning to their own countries. Even when we could reach them, we came across a variety of issues that prevented us from interviewing them: some just couldn’t make it with their busy schedule and some just couldn’t afford to travel. However, when we advertised on the migrant women communities’ social media outlets, there were a plethora of applicants that we had to painstakingly select from.
When we began the interview process, we faced a new issue. The purpose of our interviews was to understand the situations that these women [who returned] are in. However, the interviewees weren’t there merely to share their stories. They wanted us to solve their problems. There were women who have been tirelessly trying to get their problems solved. They’ve been visiting the embassy, meeting lawyers, and asking around with their contacts in Korea.
The lives of migrant women who had returned never simply fit into the following steps: 1) she came to Korea by getting married to a Korean man, 2) she returned to her home country because there was some sort of issue while living in Korea, 3) and there are some unsolved issues that she is still dealing with, issues that the Korean government and society need to provide support with. Let’s look into Rachel’s life, which can help us understand the problems that arise in the cracks, between countless migrations and returns.
Coming to Korea as an Industrial Trainee: the Very First Legal Immigrant Workers
Rachel first came to Korea in the spring of 1994. She was twenty-one. It was not an easy decision to go abroad alone to work as a woman. But she explains that there was no choice because they ‘really didn’t have money at home.’ Her older sisters had gotten married early and were raising children; her younger siblings were in school. She was the only one who could work. Her workplace in Korea was a factory of a company that she used to work for in the Philippines. A company that’s based in both Korea and Philippines, it was one of the so-called foreign investment companies. That year, 1994, was the first year that foreign workers were allowed to immigrate legally as foreign investment company workers.
However, in Korea, these workers weren’t ‘laborers’ but ‘industrial trainees.’ In reality, they worked exactly as laborers, but since their status indicated that they had come to Korea to ‘get trained,’ they were foreigners that [the companies] didn’t have to treat as laborers. Thus, they were literally living in lawlessness: there were no laws regulating their working hours, wages, or compensation for industrial accidents to protect them.
During that time, there was sometimes media coverage of the inhumane treatment of these industrial trainees. It was only natural for them to escape from their initial workplaces and seek better work environments. They came to Korea to survive, after all. Thus, Rachel became an undocumented foreign worker, a so-called ‘illegal immigrant.’
In 1998, Rachel returned to the Philippines, pregnant. There was no way for her to give birth and raise a child in Korea as an undocumented immigrant. The father of her child was a Filipino man who had no intention of taking responsibility for the child. He had left her.
She returned to the Philippines after working in Korea for four years, but her life in the Philippines did not change much. Her family still expected her to make money abroad, as they had for the past four years. Moreover, Rachel now had to raise her own child as well. But there was no work in the Philippines. If there were, she wouldn’t have gone to Korea in the first place.
Living as an ‘Illegal Person’
Just as she first made her decision to go to Korea in 1994, she decided to go to Korea again, now with the extra burden of having a child. However, this time, there was no option to move to Korea legally due to her history of staying in Korea as an undocumented immigrant for two years.
With such a situation, she decided not to go back to the Philippines when she became pregnant with a second child. She couldn’t be confident that she could come back to Korea as someone else again. The father of her second child was also a Filipino, and he--just as the father of her first child--wasn’t interested in taking care of his child. Even if he did, [they both knew] how difficult it would be to raise an ‘illegal child’ as ‘illegal people’ themselves.
She sent her second child to the Philippines within a month of giving birth to him/her. Her parents have been raising her children since then. With one more person to take care of, Rachel continued trying her best to not get caught and deported.
However, there was another issue waiting for her. When she went to the Filipino embassy to register her second child’s birth, her child had to be Grace’s child, not Rachel’s, since she was living as Grace in Korea. When she returned to the Philippines later and tried to solve this problem, she couldn’t, and it’s still unresolved. Again, the biggest problem is money. Her child knows about this and criticizes Rachel for it. The reason that she’s trying to go back to Korea also involves this issue about her child’s birth registration.
Becoming a ‘Legal’ Marriage-based Immigrant
Rachel returned to the Philippines five years after she sent her child away. But she didn’t return to stay permanently. Rather, she returned [to solve the issues that need to be resolved] in order to live in Korea.
In 2010, Grace’s Filipino friend introduced her to a Korean man who worked at the same factory as the friend. Grace and the man lived far apart, so they couldn’t meet that often , but affection still grew between them while talking here and there. The fact that he was twenty years older and had three children with his ex-wife didn’t matter much to Grace because of the way he treated her. In addition, he was understanding of the fact that she was residing in Korea as an undocumented immigrant, that she had two children with different fathers, and that she’d been sending money back home.
They decided to officially get married. However, he wanted her to get married as Rachel and not as her cousin. She also agreed to do so because then she wouldn’t have to live so unstably as an undocumented person. They went to the Philippines, had a wedding ceremony, and prepared all the necessary documents together.
Six months later, for the third time, Rachel came to Korea. This time she wasn’t an industrial trainee or a traveler but a Korean citizen’s spouse. The couple’s married life was smooth. They found a small apartment and worked together at a factory. They were living in the present together as well as preparing for the future together. Her husband suggested that she bring her two children to Korea so that they could live together. She was grateful just for the fact he suggested it.
Where Does a ‘Marriage-based’ Immigrant without a Korean Husband or a Child Stand?
Misfortune always happens abruptly. Her husband began to lose weight and get tired easily. In the beginning, they thought it might be because he was working a labor-intensive job at the factory at the age of nearly sixty. After visiting a small neighborhood clinic, he said he should go visit a bigger hospital in Seoul. They were living in a small city in South Chungcheong Province. Her husband said his oldest daughter would accompany him. Rachel was extremely worried and anxious, but she couldn’t come with him because she couldn’t miss even a few days of work with the thought of her family in the Philippines. Her husband knew all of this, so he didn’t say anything about it.
They continued to keep in touch by texting each other. Not long after he left, she got a text that his mother had to have surgery. Then the texting stopped. She was agonized, but she didn’t know any of his other family members’ contact information. A month later, her husband’s youngest daughter sent an email to her saying that he had been diagnosed with cancer, had had surgery but didn’t have much improvement, and then, during a second surgery, he had passed away. Rachel was dazed. The last time she had seen her husband was when he was leaving to visit the hospital in Seoul. The hospital never even contacted her, his wife, to let her know that he was having surgery, nor that he passed away. She was the deceased’s spouse, yet she hadn’t even been able to attend the funeral. She could only guess that his children had taken the whole matter into their hands as if she didn’t exist. This was 2014, only three years after their wedding.
Not long after she heard the news about his passing, she met with his oldest daughter and youngest daughter. She knew that he had three children with his ex-wife, but this was her first time meeting them. They brought her to his grave where he was buried. It was her first time visiting her husband’s hometown. That was the only way she was able to say farewell to her husband.
Rachel told us that he had some possessions but his children probably took care of the inheritance matters. When she went to his grave with his two daughters, the oldest daughter took out a bunch of documents for Rachel to sign. When she asked why there were so many documents, the daughter said that it was because the three children each needed to keep a copy. She asked them for her copy too. The documents she brought to the interview with us were the ones she got at that time. In the beginning, there was no inheritance for her, but later on, his youngest daughter helped her to receive the pension for surviving family members from the government.
Rachel decided to stay in Korea with a legal status she obtained through ‘a marriage-based visa due to a spouse’s death.’ She had to stay in order to continue supporting her family and her children in the Philippines by working at the factory, just as she used to before her husband passed away. If they had followed the adoption process as her husband suggested, she could’ve lived in Korea with her children. However, with her husband passing away so abruptly, this ended up being just an idea.
If she had a Korean-national child with her husband, her situation would’ve been different. Currently, Korea’s immigration policies and multicultural family welfare policies are favorable towards marriage-based immigrants that have children through their marriages with their Korean-citizen spouses. [This is because in Korea, i]t is only natural for a mother to raise a Korean-citizen child in Korea. However, a marriage-based immigrant woman who lives in Korea without a husband or children is often viewed as having had dishonest reasons from the start for marrying. It is simply discriminatory to force patriarchal family ideals and systems onto marriage-based immigrants when the same is no longer done to Korean families composed of men and women with Korean citizenship.
The only driving force that led Rachel to go on was the hope of living a better life with her family, whether in Korea or in the Philippines. She thought that once her two children finished school and started working, her life abroad would come to an end, after two decades. Her older child is actually attending one of the top universities in the Philippines. However, her immigration experience that continued between being legal and illegal did not end happily.
In 2017, someone knocked on her door. “Grace, are you there?” Immediately she could tell that they were from immigration. During that time, she had been living legally as Rachel for five years already. Her decade as Grace ended when she married her husband in 2010. ‘Why did they come? How did they know about ‘Grace’? What’s wrong?’ She opened the door while all sorts of thoughts went through her mind. Then, she was brought to the immigrant deportation center handcuffed.
She had countless questions but was given only one chance to make an external phone call. She requested some time to wrap up her affairs, having lived in Korea for six years, before leaving for the Philippines but was denied to do so. Due to her life as Grace seven years before, which the Korean government had neglected, or overlooked (it is a well-known fact that the Korean government often either mass-produces or cracks down on ‘illegal immigrants’ for political and economic reasons), she was denied even just a few days that could’ve been given to her for humanitarian reasons.
Since returning to the Philippines, Rachel has been searching here and there for ways to go back to Korea. She filed a complaint with the Korean embassy in the Philippines, visited an immigration agency, and reached out to her contacts in Korea. She’s been seeking out any place that can possibly connect her back to Korea. Agreeing to interview with us was another way for her to do so.
Why does Rachel want to go back to Korea? Why doesn’t she stop trying even when she knows it will be difficult for her to get a visa due to her past ‘illegal stay’? She says she’s most worried about the education costs for her older child, who’s in college, and her younger child, who’s about to go to college. She also mentions how it is impossible to neglect her immediate family that relies on her greatly. She reasons that it is impossible to find a job to support her family as well as her children’s education in the Philippines while it is possible to do so in Korea with her past experience.
Some might wonder, ‘How could she possibly not have the funds even to change her children’s birth registrations after working in Korea for two decades as well as receiving government benefits from her husband’s passing?’ Some might also wonder about her savings. Where did all the money that she made traveling back and forth between Korea and the Philippines, sometimes as an illegal immigrant and sometimes as someone completely different, go? She would be the most frustrated if anyone were to ask her.
The money she had consistently sent was used to sustain her family and her children’s education. Her parents, her younger sibling, and her two children have been living on the money she’s been sending. In fact, this situation where a single family member goes abroad to support her family, as well as that same family member ending up leaving repeatedly to make money abroad, is not unique to Rachel’s story. Not just Asian women who’ve immigrated to Korea but also those who’re working in Hong Kong, the Middle East, and Europe as domestic workers, factory workers, and adult entertainment workers share this experience.
Until the structural systems that push families, communities and national economies to rely on women’s migration change, poor women’s voluntary and involuntary immigration--legal and illegal--will continue on.
By: Wee Ra Kyum
Translated by: Han Seung-a
*Original Article: http://ildaro.com/8798
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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