Finding an asylum from Duterte’s drug war

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New York (CNN Philippines Life) — Before I came to New York, I was a staff photographer at the Manila Bulletin for two years. I covered protests, processions, politics, crime, and the occasional multi-alarm fire. While I never got the chance to work the night shift, which quickly became infamous for coverage of President Duterte’s war on drugs, I saw my fair share of horror. It was during the day that you saw the fallout from the crackdown: the bereaved families, the overcrowded jails, the rallies against the killings (and sometimes for) and the press conferences by both politicians and the police.

It never once occurred to me that the effects of this domestic policy would reach the other side of the world.

In 2017, I received a scholarship to participate in the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism program at the International Center of Photography here in New York. The one-year intensive course culminated in a final project, which is typically a photo essay. For my project, I turned to the Filipino community, specifically the local chapters of youth activist groups Gabriela and Anakbayan. Most of their activities were related to issues in the Philippines, so I asked about what issues the local Filipino community was facing. Both the New York and New Jersey groups were looking for volunteers to be part of Christmas visitations to the center. They told me about a Filipino being held in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who had a very unique case.

His name is Christian, and he was granted asylum in the United States because of the drug war in the Philippines. In early 2017, Christian was flagged for deportation due to his undocumented status and prior low-level drug charge. As he made his way to work one morning, he was cornered by ICE agents and taken to a detention center where he was told to await his hearing. Citing international coverage of the drug war, the judge at his hearing decided that deporting Christian back to the Philippines with his record would put him in mortal danger, and granted him asylum. This means that he can live and work in the U.S. legally, but has effectively rescinded his Filipino citizenship and is not allowed to return; and because of his record, he does not have a path to citizenship, rendering him stateless. The night I met him at the center, he was already waiting for his release papers to be signed.

On a second visit about a week later, I asked Christian if he would allow me to document his life after his release for my final project. He graciously agreed, and for the next few months, I followed him around with my camera as he put his life back together.

Putting the project together was tough for me, as someone who was used to capturing single images for a newspaper. I was trained to constantly look out for that one, peak moment that captures the essence of a news event. The ideal image was always one that answers all the questions about the what, who and when of the news event, framed in a way that is visually arresting and evokes intense emotion.

For this story, I had to spend a lot more time with my subject and string together a series of photographs that ask more from the viewer than they give; photographs that are more like questions, without answers. As a visual story that is connected to the drug war, it’s a departure from the naked brutality captured by my brave colleagues back home and steps into the moral ambiguity that I feel more and more supporters of the drug war are finding themselves in.

As important as the context of Christian’s story is, and what the implications are for the ongoing drug war, the images show what it feels like to be in his situation. His life was undoubtedly saved, but there's the question of whether it gets better from here on out and how much of that is in his control.

There is uneasiness, loneliness, and frustration. It brings up questions about why we should care about people who make mistakes, why so many Filipinos are forced to take such huge risks to provide better lives for their families, and how the ways we decide to solve our problems can have terrible, consequences.

Christian checks his face in the mirror after shaving. Photo by RICO CRUZ

One World Trade Center and the rest of Lower Manhattan is seen from Jersey City, where Christian and a community of over 16,000 Filipinos live. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Christian does his laundry for the first time since his release from ICE detention. Upon his arrest, all his clothes were packed into suitcases, not expecting he would be later granted asylum. Photo by RICO CRUZ

At the time of his arrest, Christian was living in his aunt’s basement. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Christian contemplates his next shot during a round of billiards at a Jersey City pool hall. An avid player, he says that playing billiards is one of the few times he is truly happy and at ease, as he has control over the game. Photo by RICO CRUZ

The corner of Yale and Mallory avenues, where Christian was apprehended by ICE agents in the summer of 2017. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Christian shows off the tattoo of his wife’s name on his forearm. Photo by RICO CRUZ

The view of from a friend's car, on the way to a construction worksite where Christian works. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Pencil sketches made by Christian while in ICE detention on his apartment wall. Photo by RICO CRUZ

The main entrance of the ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Christian dumps a bin full of trash into a dumpster during a house-clearing job in Jersey City. Photo by RICO CRUZ

Hand prints on a dirty window at the house Christian helped clear out. Photo by RICO CRUZ