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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Cruising for Freedom

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | February 8th, 2008 | Comments No Comments

“When you buy mangoes on the street, you have to be careful,” warns Nilo, a 47-year-old Filipino, “because you only see the pretty mangoes on the top, not the rotten ones on the bottom.”pict0093_7.JPG

Nilo is a seafarer, one of the 25 percent of the world’s seafarers who come from the Philippines and work for months at a stretch on cruise ships, tankers, cargo ships. For a year, he was one of those faceless seamen who keep Americans gorging at the endless buffets on cruises.pict0096_7.JPG

After his year-long contract with Holland America ended in Miami, he took his $7,000 of annual earnings and finishing bonus and “jumped ship,” entering America illegally.

“When I saw the first ‘Miami Vice,’ I thought, ‘What a nice place!’ I wanted to see what America was all about,” Nilo says, explaining his illegal move with a sheepish smile. He is dapper in his pumpkin-colored shirt and pressed pants that might very well have been inspired by Don Johnson.

In Miami, Nilo worked as a cook, a landscaper, a housepainter, “whatever job I could get,” he says proudly. “If you work hard and have ambition, America is good to you.”

“But, if you are illegal, your chances are slim.”

At the restaurant where he cooked, Nilo met a glamorous, petite Filipina with US citizenship, dated her for five years, got married, and scrimped and saved to buy a pre-construction house. He had the American dream… until he applied for green card status, when immigration handcuffed him, jailed him in Miami for four days, and deported him back to Manila.

“If you are an overstayed tourist and marry a green card holder, it’s OK. But, if you are a seamen, it’s a different category,” Nilo learned.

Following September 11th, “seamen are treated the same as terrorists under the U.S. Homeland Security,” says pastor Rey Lopez. Over coffee, I glance at the man with sporty, spiky hair and an almond-eyed gaze that’s older his smooth, baby face. Nilo doesn’t look like a terrorist as he fishes out a worn photo album with photos of his wife and three dogs named for Filipino spices, his “Spice Girls.”

Then he unfolds a dusty, fragile letter from the U.S. Embassy denying his immigration status.

It’s been years since his effort to legalize his life in the United States. His wife was able to visit him in Manila two years ago, but money is tight, and yearly visits are difficult. No one knows how many other families in America have been broken by deported seamen.

“I tried to make an example for Filipinos – work hard, plan. I saved my money, I proved I could do it. In three years, we bought a house,” Nilo shrugs, accepting his fate. He has been working with an American lawyer to secure legal green card status; he asked me not to disclose his last name. “I just want to go back to my wife.”

“I violated the law. If I’m given a chance, I can be a good example,” Nilo says. “I tell seamen here ‘Don’t jump ship. Don’t go TNT,’” the colloquial phrase for tago ng tago, literally “hiding and hiding.” Always hiding.

And always hidden.

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