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Uncertain future: The Absconder Initiative uproots a Filipino family from Kentucky. (Report).

Unlike the appearance of much of the populace in her home state of Kentucky, Myleen Manalastas doesn't come across laid-back and easygoing. As we drove in her car down the South Dixie Highway from Louisville to Elizabethtown, Myleen spoke in hurried, driven, and sometimes agitated speech about the events that occurred a few weeks before we met. In June, Myleen's father had been deported to the Philippines, in shackles, with 62 other Filipino men and women.

Myleen witnessed the arrest of her father, William Manalastas, by INS agents on the morning of March 6. Agents came to the Manalastas home in Elizabethtown, a community of 20,000 residents about 45 miles south of Louisville. Myleen not only saw her father taken into custody, but she also claims some responsibility. "I turned my own father in," she states sadly.

Her computer science background was reflected in her narrative, strung like ones and zeros in a programmed sequence. She had allowed the INS agents who came to the front door to enter. She believed them when they said, "We just need to keep your father for at least a night." She trusted these figures of authority when she telephoned her father and told him that he needed to turn himself in.

But to say that Myleen is responsible for her father's detention and deportation is unfair and diverts responsibility from the true actors and circumstances. As Myleen eventually discovered, her father had fallen subject to a U.S. Department of Justice directive called the Absconder Apprehension Initiative. Enacted in late January 2002, it is this government policy that explains why William Manalastas was arrested and detained for 110 days and eventually deported back to the Philippines. His offenses were overstaying his visa and being from a country with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. He was not allowed to answer to the charges.

A few days before William's deportation on June 25, he called home to Kentucky from the INS processing center in El Centro, California. This was the third detention center he had been sent to. Myleen, answering the phone, asked him what it was like there. "They're bringing Filipinos from all over," William told her.

Between October 2001 and June 2002, nearly 500 Filipinos were deported from the United States, according to the INS.

The Absconder Initiative puts to paper what the Justice Department intends to do in response to the events of September 11, namely the capture and deportation of more than 300,000 people with immigration violations. The efforts that began with roundups of individuals from Arab and South Asian countries, mostly Muslims, have steadily spread out into new and different communities.

A Family Crusade

When her father was arrested and detained, Myleen took on much of the responsibility of speaking for her family to the press, lawyers, and law enforcement officers. She graduated in December 2001 from Western Kentucky College with a degree in computer science, so, under different circumstances, Myleen would have been job hunting or enjoying the life of an ordinary 23-year-old. Instead, she spent her days and nights helping to guide the rest of her family into their uncertain future. Due to their own visa violations, Myleen, her mother Myrna, and her sisters Joan, Jonaleen, and Mary joy were all living under the threat of deportation as well.

As Myleen drove me to visit the family, she explained how in most Filipino families, the oldest daughter is called Ate by her younger siblings. Being the oldest brings respect and responsibility. "I always try to do good because of my sisters," she said, checking the rearview mirror for the minivan with her sisters following us. "I owe it to them."

Myleen has spent much energy attempting to bring attention to the family's plight and to demand some form of due process for her father's case. These efforts have taken her to Washington, D.C., where she met with the Philippine ambassador and Sen. Mitch McConnell (D-Kentucky) and spoke in front of a gathering of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. She did numerous interviews with the Kentucky media and the national Filipino press. In further efforts to get their story spread as widely as possible, the sisters also built an extensive website documenting the Manalastas story. The website's name,, comes from a nickname the sisters gave themselves, which is their shorthand way of saying "The Manalastas Girls."

Since William's arrest, none of the family have been allowed to work due to their immigration status and visa violations, and as a consequence, they could not afford to remain in the house they had rented since first arriving in Kentucky in 1995. Myleen left her apartment in Bowling Green and moved with Joan and Jonaleen to a friend's home in Louisville. Myrna and Mary Joy, the youngest daughter, moved to a family friend's house in Elizabethtown.

At a picnic in a park on the outskirts of Elizabethtown, the sisters reminisced about past afternoons spent in the park. They recalled their father's dreams about a good education for his daughters, his resourcefulness and energy. He'd held down a fulltime job as a lab technician at the local Coca-Cola bottler, was licensed for home repairs, and had a side business catering Filipino food in the Louisville area. He had even invented an improved process to cook the traditional roast pork dish, lechon, and was planning to market and sell his special oven. Through William's ingenuity and drive, the Manalastas family had endeared themselves to their communities in both Elizabethtown and Louisville.

Myrna Manalastas tried to describe how it felt to see people turn their backs on her family after William's arrest. "You understand who your true friends are when something like this happens to you," she said, holding back tears of frustration.

After lunch, Myleen brought out binders filled with paperwork that she and her family had collected, the impressive paper trail of all the efforts they had taken to try to stay in the United States. The amount of letters written, business cards collected, and documentation created and archived was sobering: a FedEx package delivery form from the U.S. Attorney General's office, letters attesting to good conduct from the wardens of William's detention facilities, pages and pages of correspondence with lawyers, and what seemed like thousands of business cards.

A large portion of Myleen's archives were press clippings. Some of the newspapers in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio had carried the Manalastas' story, but the majority of coverage came from the Filipino media, most of it national and international. One article referred to William as "Pa" in the headline, as if to make light of their Kentucky background. Another article focused on the girls' fears about going back to the Philippines, implying that they were scared of their culture.

And though many of the articles did mention the political directive that forced William into detention without bond or due process, many failed to analyze what the Absconder Apprehension Initiative meant for the Filipino community and for immigrant communities at large. The initiative was reported as a means to clear the country of criminals and fugitives, none of which apply to William or his family.

One Justice Department official, quoted in the Washington Post, assessed the initiative as "a success in the sense that it yielded the apprehension of many very dangerous aliens who should not be in the country." In actuality, most of the people caught in this tangle are like the Manalastas family, who were allowed to remain in the U.S. for over 10 years, to create a home and build a community, only to have their futures in this country quickly disposed of.

As the afternoon in Elizabethtown began to fade, and the sun started to dip a little in the Kentucky sky, the Manalastas women too shifted their tone. The talk of possibilities and of staying in the United States gave way to more solemn discussions of packing boxes and selling cars. They had told their story, fought to speak up and unleash their voices to the public. But behind the talk were thoughts of how to prepare for what they felt was inevitable: their return to the Philippines. As if conceding their time on the center stage was limited, but hopefully not wasted, Myleen said, "I want you to use us--use my family as an example of what can happen."

Gordon Hurd is a freelance writer, photographer, and soon-to-be father based in Oakland, CA.

Gordon Hurd, "Uncertain Future." Gordon is a freelance writer, photographer, and soon-to-be father based in Oakland, CA.
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Author:Hurd, Gordon
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Previous Article:And justice for all. (Report).
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