One of the last acts of Philippines president Benigno Aquino III, whose term expired in June, held particular significance for the Filipino community living in the United States. On May 31st, the outgoing president signed a law that raised the tax-exempt value of noncommercial personal goods sent home to the Philippines from 10,000 pesos ($214) to 150,000 pesos ($3,208). Filipinos living overseas—one third of whom live in the United States—can now send three tax-free shipments of goods per year to their family and friends back home, provided that the value of each shipment does not exceed the newly raised limit.
These shipments, packaged in what are what are called balikbayan boxes, have long been a cultural staple of the overseas Filipino community. While regular homecoming trips are prohibitively expensive for most Filipinos in America, the minifridge-sized balikbayan boxes are considered a worthy substitute—balikbayan is Tagalog for “return to the homeland”. Overseas Filipinos send home approximately seven million boxes per year, nearly one per migrant, with volume peaking around Christmastime. So ingrained is the practice in the public consciousness of the Philippines that in April, when boxer Manny Pacquiao’s brother had his balikbayan box go missing on a flight from Los Angeles to Manila, the package-tracking story made national news.
The practice of sending balikbayan boxes benefits the United States in several important ways. For one thing, senders tend to fill their boxes with hundreds of dollars’ worth of American products, boosting local economies wherever they do their shopping. Second, as many of these packaged goods are selected for the fact that they are characteristically American, the Filipino citizens who receive balikbayan boxes gain broader exposure to American products. The boxes, in other words, provide the United States with a free and self-sustaining mechanism of cultural diplomacy.
Migration to the United States has profoundly shaped the economy and culture of the Philippines. The United States is home to the world’s largest population of overseas Filipinos, with large communities in west coast cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. (The number of Filipinos living in California, roughly 1.5 million, exceeds the total population of Hawaiʻi.) This population makes up the largest Southeast Asian immigrant group in the United States and the second-largest Asian group after China. Its members send a considerable amount of money back home: The Philippines took in almost $30 billion in personal remittances in 2014, a figure that represents about 10% of the country’s entire GDP and is the third-largest in the world behind and China and India—countries with populations over ten times the size of the Philippines’. The value of these remittances, more than one third of which come from the United States, is triple the amount recorded in 2004.
The actual effects of the new balikbayan law have yet to be seen. In the meantime, the new President, Roderigo Duterte, has promised to streamline the process for migrants seeking to send money and belongings back home to the Philippines.
Benjamin Nathan is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated from Williams College in 2015.