Friday, March 5, 2021

“Tago Ng Tago”: The Untold Story of Filipino Undocumented Immigrants in Perpetual Hiding

Guest blogger: Riane Briones, law student, University of San Francisco

For the uninitiated, the mental image of an undocumented immigrant conjures up caravans, border crossings, and chants to “Build the Wall!” But, delving deeper into the notion of who makes an undocumented immigrant would reveal a story less commonly told - the one of the Asian undocumented immigrant.

According to a 2020 study done by the Migration Policy Institute, while a majority of Filipino immigrants are lawful permanent residents, approximately 313,000 were unauthorized in the 2012-16 period.[1]

This might not come as a surprise to a number of Filipinos - Tagalog-speakers have coined a term for those living unauthorized in the United States: “Tago ng tago”, which means “hiding and hiding”.[2] To live “TNT” in the U.S. means to hide - hide your status, hide from authorities, hide from ill-wishers, so as to evade removal.[3]

One might ask - how might a Filipino cross into America “illegally” when the Philippines is across the ocean. For many immigrants, losing status comes in the form of overstaying visas or entering with false documents, sometimes unwittingly.[4]

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and immigrant rights activist, uncovered this dilemma when he found his green card to be fake.[5] Vargas detailed this discovery in his memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, when he attempted to obtain a California driver’s license with his documents.[6]

This circumstance was also touched upon in the NBC show Superstore, albeit in a more morbidly humorous way, when Mateo, a character from the Philippines, figures out that his green card is fake.[7] In a telling scene, Mateo rants to his coworker that he knows he is an American citizen because he went to the “green card store” with his grandmother.[8] When met with a puzzled reaction, the scene cuts to Mateo on the phone with his grandmother, conversing in Taglish (a hybrid of Tagalog and English): “So yung green card ngayon...counterfeit? So ibig sabihin hindi ako American citizen?”[9] So the green card is counterfeit? So you’re saying I’m not an American citizen?

Sometimes, the Filipino undocumented experience is revealed in more horrific ways. In Daly City, California, just fifteen minutes outside of San Francisco, the Rainbow Brite Daycare trafficked a number of Filipino immigrants over a ten-year period.[10] The suspects reportedly took the workers’ passports and forced them to work nearly 24 hours a day.[11]

This might have come as a shock to many that Filipinos could be trafficked, let along undocumented. There may be an assumption that many Filipinos arrive on work visas or family petitions due to a high number of Filipino nurses[12] or the sheer volume of family petitions coming from the Philippines[13]. However, for much of the Filipino community, the TNT experience is one that is widely known, even if it is whispered about.

Despite how familiar this story might be for some Filipinos, what many who are undocumented might not realize is that there are forms of unknown relief available to them. In 2012, President Obama unveiled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.[14] However, of the 643,600 active DACA participants, only 3,270 Filipinos were amongst them when approximately 23,000 were eligible.[15]

This brings about a number of troubling realizations: first, that a number of Filipino immigrants are potentially not aware of forms of relief available to them; and secondly, that a number of Filipinos were likely removed when they were otherwise DACA eligible or had other forms of relief available to them. The ultimate question is: why don’t more Filipino immigrants know about DACA or other forms of immigration relief or assistance? Perhaps it is the lack of outreach in areas with high Filipino populations, or the intimidating idea of navigating a complicated immigration system. Perhaps it is the steadfast belief in the American Dream, that hard work will bring about citizenship.

No matter the case, these cases highlight the need for support in the Filipino immigrant community. Many Filipino undocumented immigrants are telling their stories. It’s up to us to uplift them so that others may hear it.


[1] Luis Hassan Gallardo and Jeanne Batalova, Filipino Immigrants in the United States, Migration Policy Institute (July 15, 2020),

[2] Raymond Partolan, DACA Recipient: Why Filipino Americans Must Act Now to Protect the Filipino Undocumented Community, Asian Journal (June 19, 2020),; Alyssa Aquino, Undocumented Filipinos Are Living a Special Nightmare in Trump’s America, Foreign Policy in Focus (March 17, 2017),

[3] Id.

[4] Anthony Advincula, How many Filipinos overstayed their US visas in 2016?, Philippine Daily Inquirer (June 9, 2017),; Jose Antonio Vargas, My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant, New York Times (June 22, 2011),

[5] Vargas, supra note 4.

[6] Jose Antonio Vargas, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (2018).

[7] Define American, Mateo is Undocumented | Define American, YouTube (Aug. 20, 2016),

[8] Id.     

[9] Id.

[10]  Kiki Intarasuwan, Rainbow Bright Daycare Trafficked Workers, Stole $8.5 Million in Wages: Attorney General, NBC Bay Area (Sept. 7, 2018),


[11] Id.

[12] Anne Brice, Why are there so many Filipino nurses in the U.S.? Berkeley News (May 28, 2019),

[13] Lourdes Santos Tancinco, Philippines Ranks Second in List of Countries with Most Backlogged Petitions, Tancino Law, P.C. (Dec. 21, 2018),

[14] Gallardo, supra note 1.

[15] Id.


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