Hope for Amends to Filipino Immigrants
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Amid the wrangling over immigration reform, virtually everyone in Congress appears to agree on one point: Filipino-born veterans who fought alongside U.S. troops during World War II deserve a break.
Denied the right to immigrate to the United States until 1990, they came hoping that their children could follow them here later, just as other groups have done. But the adult children have been required to wait twice as long -- up to 16 years -- as anyone else. With the veterans often too old and sick to travel home, many have died while waiting to be reunited with their families.
Now, after several longtime backers have risen to key positions in Congress, Filipino American advocates are hopeful that legislation will be pushed through to exempt the veterans' children from the immigration delay. They also are optimistic about a potentially more controversial bill that would grant Filipino veterans military pensions.
About 5,000 veterans in the United States would stand to benefit from a change in immigration provisions, and an additional 10,000 in the Philippines could be eligible for pensions.
To many in the 2-million-strong Filipino American community, the issue represents a chance to cement their political identity in a nation where they have long felt invisible, even though Filipinos rank second, behind Mexicans, in the number of immigrants living in the United States.
"Historically, we Filipinos have always been looked down on as your little brown brothers -- as these acquiescent people who would just accept anything Uncle Sam would do to them," said Jon Melegrito, communications director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. "This is about asserting who we are as a people and how we served this country. . . . It's a call to action to stop acting like colonial slaves and to start acting like first-class citizens."
The effort builds on an association with the United States that dates to 1898, when the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain after winning the Spanish-American War.
Laws and discriminatory practices against all Asian immigrants kept Filipino numbers in the United States low through the first half of the 1900s. But in the Philippines, many residents were taught English and raised to think of themselves as something akin to Americans.
Celestino Almeda, 90, a veteran who lives in Alexandria, remembered that the director of his elementary school in Manila led students in a pledge of allegiance to the American flag every morning.
"We also celebrated all the holidays: Washington's birthday, Armistice Day," Almeda said. "In our mind, it was like America was our mother country."
When Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, more than 200,000 Filipinos joined Americans in waging a fierce resistance, enduring such horrors as the Bataan death march and the grueling guerrilla campaign that followed. Technically, the Filipino fighters were under overall U.S. command. But within months of the Allied victory, Congress stripped most of them of their rights as foreign veterans of U.S. forces -- including the opportunity to become U.S. citizens -- on the grounds that the Philippines was about to be granted independence.
Even so, the Philippines continued its close affiliation with the United States. Thousands of Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy, which until recently had major bases there. By 1970, there were more Filipinos in the U.S. Navy than in the Philippine Navy.