Like a soap bubble that bursts, a Bilog’s dreams withers away in that moment that a policeman taps his shoulder. A deported Bilog described the feeling quite lucidly: like the fear that grips you in the split second that you awake from a nightmare, still thinking that the dream is true, and wishing that you could just turn back the clock a few seconds so that you could do things differently, and avoid the disaster. If only he had walked instead of taking a bike. If only he had turned a corner earlier. If only he had stayed home instead of going out.
The single, most important concern then of every Bilog is to stay undetected, that is, un-arrested. When asked how they achieve this, all give a similar answer: “ingat” (pronounced with the “ing” in “singing”) which, in Filipino, means “to take care.”
But how exactly is ingat done? Where is the line that separates ingat and paralysis? Is ingat like a jail sentence, virtually locking up Bilogs indoors? And, are indoors in fact safer? More importantly, for those Bilogs that were caught, what actions of theirs didn’t constitute ingat and which ultimately led to their arrest?
Three Stages of Ingat
Staying as far away as possible from the authorities (proactive/prevention – stage 1) is three-fourths of ingat. If a Bilog still gets into contact with the authorities, he must know exactly what to do (reactive/survival – stage 2). When interrogated or arrested, a Bilog must know what to expect and what his options are (defensive/preservation – stage 3).
Stage 1 – Proactive/Prevention
Early Warning Network. A Bilog must develop and maintain as wide a set of trusted friends as possible, especially those living in the same locality as he is. These friends of his act as extended eyes and ears, warning him to avoid train stations or malls where they notice a heightened police presence or where they see parked government vehicles, especially immigration vehicles. The early warning signals are usually sent through text messages or calls, making a Bilog’s mobile phone a key appliance in stage 1.
However, there is a key trade-off requiring a difficult cost-benefit decision. The wider a Bilog’s early warning network, the greater is his exposure level. The price of better prevention is lesser security. This is because to have a wider network, more people have to know of one’s irregular status. The more the people who know one is irregular, the higher the risk that one of them will eventually become one’s squealer. A Bilog’s Sphere of Trust – those people who he consciously allows to be aware of his irregular status – is a key, strategic decision (to be discussed further in succeeding posts).
A Bilog has several options when he gets these early warning signals. He can choose to get off one station before or one station after the station identified as a high risk station, walking the rest of the way to his home. Or he can choose to take another route to get home, bringing us to the next section, a detection risk ranking of transport systems.
Detection Risk Ranking. One of the first things mentioned about past Bilogs is how they were arrested. From these actual incidents of detection, current Bilogs assign risk rankings to various modes of transportation. Riding a bicycle is the riskiest transport mode as police are known to frequently conduct inspections, stopping foreigner-looking cyclists and checking bicycle registration papers and alien registration cards. Police know that most migrant workers rely on cycling in order to save on transportation costs. In Japan where a large portion of the busiest areas of an urban center are also covered by subway trains, a Bilog would be well advised to avoid the open-air trains (like JR or Nankai) where inspections are more frequently conducted. Taking a bus may be more expensive than the subway but is safer. A mobile Bilog is safest when walking.
The Detection Risk Ranking of various transport modes is as follows (Rank 1 being the riskiest): Bicycle (Rank 1); Open-Air Trains (Rank 2); Subway Trains (Rank 3); Bus (Rank 4); Walking (Rank 5). Readers must be cautioned that Rank 5 does not in any way mean that there have not been arrests made when a Bilog was travelling on foot.
Know Thy Adversary. Bilogs know by heart where police stations, outposts and known police visibility areas are located. They build their travel routes around these high-risk areas, knowing that avoidance is the best policy. The more challenging adversaries are the immigration officers who do not wear uniforms and who do not seem to have recognizable patterns in their inspection behavior. Bilogs have varying descriptions of how they sense out if a person may be an immigration agent. Relying mostly on their gut feelings, Bilogs explain that the moment they feel uneasy and suspicious of a person – say for example when they are in a mall or in a supermarket – they immediately leave or go as far away as possible from that person.
Bilogs are also keenly aware of the situations when police definitely come, and they are sure to be out of that place long before they do. When out drinking in a club, and some tipsy customers become rowdy and create trouble, Bilogs know that the bar owner will report the incident to the police, so they hurriedly leave. If a Bilog is involved in the trouble, and even if he knows he is the aggrieved party, survivor Bilogs just swallow their egos and leave. Having no legal status, Bilogs are always on the losing end.
Work accidents are another sure magnet for police to come. Bilogs know that when police arrive they will cordon off the area and all workers will be asked for work papers. Trouble created at an apartment building where a Bilog may be temporarily staying – such as noise during parties or leaking pipes or gas leaks – automatically makes the Bilog leave the premises.
Despite all care taken by the Bilog, it is inevitable that he will come into close contact with Japanese authorities. In these instances he must switch from proactive/prevention mode to reactive/survival mode – stage two of ingat.
Stage 2 – Reactive/Survival
The first survival skill when one unexpectedly crosses paths with the police is to stay calm and act natural. A Bilog must not make jerky movements or suddenly change his current direction so as to make the policeman take notice of him. A Bilog must be aware that as a general rule, Japanese authorities do not stop passers-by on foot, unless there is a pressing reason to do so such as if a commotion is created or trouble is brewing. A Bilog can be comforted by the fact that pedestrians are for the most part anonymous and invisible to the Japanese authorities.
If a Bilog is on a bicycle and he sees a policeman on foot or on a bicycle and they will unavoidably cross paths, if one can still change direction or make a quick turn at a corner or alley without arousing suspicion then that would be his first reactive option. However, if it is too late to change direction, then the reactive action would be to just look straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the police, and not to increase speed, maintaining the same standard cruising speed for street biking.
If a Bilog is in a situation where there is an impending inspection to happen and he cannot escape being part of that inspection, he must be decisive and act fast, knowing full well what he is prepared to do in order to elude arrest. A Bilog cannot afford to have second thoughts about whether he is willing to make this sacrifice or if he is ready to take that physical pain or inconvenience. He must just do it. Bilogs stress that clarity of one’s purpose to be irregular in Japan is the key to decisiveness and resoluteness at evading arrest, as narrated in this story about 1,000 Insect Bites.
Lastly, if despite proactive care and reactive steps taken, a Bilog finds himself stopped by police and questioned, then he must shift to defensive/preservation mode – stage 3.
Stage 3 – Defensive/Preservation
If a Bilog is stopped while riding a bicycle, he must calmly get off and, if requested, show his bicycle papers, which must always be in one’s possession. Not all bicycle inspections are targeted to ferret out irregular migrants. Bilogs narrate instances when they have been flagged down while on a bicycle and after showing their bicycle papers, they were allowed to continue on. Some bicycle inspections are targeted at flushing out criminal elements.
Experiences narrated of past Bilogs who were held at the immigration detention center point to a number of last-ditch efforts aimed at the preservation of whatever other perceived advantage one still has or of any future plans to return to Japan. [These tactics, employed by arrested Bilogs, are currently being cleared for publication in this blog.]
On top of proactive, reactive and defensive actions, a Bilog’s most effective survival strategy is to be always prepared for one’s temporary Japan sojourn to come to its inevitable end, that is, deportation. As one Bilog respondent stated, one’s arrest is not a question of whether it will happen, but rather when it will happen.
A Bilog must use to the fullest whatever time he has undetected by being a productive, though unrecognized, member of the host society, not getting lured into the temptation of easy money through criminal activities.
Being prepared means always having enough cash on you so as to be able to buy your return ticket home, so that one will not languish at the immigration detention center for a long period.
Being prepared means safekeeping one’s cash savings in a way that they will still be accessible even after one’s arrest (more on this in succeeding posts).
Being prepared means keeping one’s material possessions light and to the barest minimum so that when one’s things are thrown out by the landlord for non-payment of rent, one does not feel bad.
In the end, ingat refers not simply to care that must be taken to survive in Japan as an irregular migrant worker. More importantly, ingat refers to care that must be taken to survive in life so that one’s original purposes as an irregular migrant will be achieved, regardless of what host country one is currently in.