HONOLULU —Philippines native Art Caleda still carries shrapnel in the left side of his chin that he ruefully calls a “souvenir” from assisting the American military 70 years ago as a guerrilla intelligence officer during World War II.
For their service, Caleda and about 26,000 other Filipino nationals were granted U.S. citizenship under a 1990 immigration law signed by President George H.W. Bush, and many of them received a one-time cash payment of $15,000 in 2009. But they are still waiting for a final piece of compensation: green cards for their grown children to join them here from the Philippines.
Caleda, 90, said he and his wife, Luz, who settled in Waipahu, west of Honolulu, petitioned the federal government in 1996 on behalf of their three sons, who live in Manila. They waited as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services slowly processed a global backlog of more than 4 million family-based green-card applications.
Caleda said the last time he inquired about his sons’ status, immigration officials “told me to wait because they are processing [applications from] 1993. They’re processing 1993? The time is 2014.” Luz died last spring during a trip back to the Philippines.
In all, about 250,000 Filipinos responded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to arms in 1941 and fought on behalf of American forces in the Philippines, which at the time was a U.S. territory. They responded out of a desire to defeat a common enemy, Japan, but since the end of the war, they have been pushing the U.S. government to fully recognize their contributions.
As their ranks dwindle, the elderly veterans living here as U.S. citizens have waning hopes of being reunited with their children, a casualty of Washington’s inability to enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Although President Obama announced in November that he would use his executive authority to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, his actions did little to address the lengthy backlogs in the legal immigration system — something the president said only Congress can change, through legislation.
The United States has a cap on family-based green cards of 226,000 annually, and no more than 7 percent of the recipients are permitted to come from a single country. Aside from Mexico, Asian countries, including China, Vietnam and India, dominate the list of nations with the most applicants and the longest waits. The average wait from the Philippines — which has the most family applicants after Mexico — is more than two decades.
Opponents of easing restrictions on family-based green cards say it would open the door to chain migration, in which extended families flood the United States, competing with Americans for jobs and taxing the nation’s benefits system. But Mee Moua, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said, “There is an inherent unfairness in setting people up for failure by accepting their application fees but then having them wait five, 10, 15 years before they might possibly see their family members.”
Lawmakers from Hawaii and California, where most of the Filipino veterans settled in the 1990s, have tried for years to get them special exemptions from the green-card caps. But each time, the measures were swallowed in the toxic debate over broader changes to border control laws — and ultimately went nowhere.
There are estimated to be only a few thousand Filipino veterans still alive and living in the United States.
Salome Calderon, 89, was just 17 when her home in Angono was commandeered by the Hunters ROTC guerrilla movement resisting the Japanese army for use as a de facto headquarters. The guerrillas dropped off intelligence reports on Japanese bombing targets, and Calderon, who worked as a clerk and radio operator, helped ensure that the reports were delivered by submarine to U.S. commanders based in Australia.
In the living room of her home in Waipahu — where she lives with her son Edwin, who married an American and has two children of his own — Calderon said she can still picture the “pointy nose and sparkling eyes” of a U.S. pilot who had survived a plane crash and was transported to her house briefly and presumably evacuated to safety later.
After the war, she and her husband, Enrique, a mechanic whom she met during the resistance, had 10 children.
In 1990, Bush signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, passed by Congress, which expanded the number of visas allotted for family reunification and for employment. Under the act, the Filipino veterans were granted citizenship and allowed to move to the United States with their spouses and children younger than 21.
Enrique had died in 1977, and Calderon’s other children were too old to qualify. But they told her: “Nana, you are entitled. You must go. You must enjoy the benefits.” She stayed with two brothers in San Francisco after arriving in 1992 and moved to Hawaii three years later to live with Edwin.
Having waited so long, Calderon seems ambivalent about whether she wants her six surviving children in the Philippines to join her in Hawaii, because their roots are so firmly planted back home. She shows off a Filipino magazine featuring her son Gerardo, who has been the mayor of his town for nine years.
Because of the expense, those children rarely visit her. She and Edwin will return to the Philippines on Monday for a family reunion in honor of her 90th birthday.
“They want to, but it’s hard to come,” Calderon said. “Sometimes I tell them, ‘For me, I’m not really interested in you coming here.’ But one thing I want is for them to experience life in the U.S. They can come and go if they want to.”
In 2013, the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration bill that included provisions to speed up processing and slim down the green-card backlog. It lifted the caps for spouses and children of legal permanent residents while eliminating categories for foreign siblings of U.S. citizens, who would instead be ranked on a new points-based system, with credit for family ties, education and work skills.
The Senate bill included an amendment from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) that granted the children of the Filipino veterans green cards immediately on humanitarian grounds. But the Republican-controlled House rejected the Senate legislation last summer amid fierce resistance over another provision that offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Estimates from advocacy groups suggested that as many as 20,000 children of Filipino veterans would have been covered by the Senate bill, though not all were expected to apply for green cards.
“If even 10 apply, it’s still the right thing to do,” said Rodel Rodis, a San Francisco-based lawyer who has done pro bono work on behalf of the veterans.
Two of Caleda’s sons live in Manila, where he grew up, and another works in Vietnam. Caleda’s three daughters all live in the United States, having gone to school here on student visas and marrying Americans.
Since Luz died, Caleda is uncertain how to proceed on behalf of his sons, because his wife had been the petitioner on their green-card applications. He fears he will have to re-file, pay additional fees and go to the back of the line again. His eldest son, Arthur, is 60 and another, Benedicto, is 58 — and he’s not sure it makes sense for them to come as they near their own retirement.
“To wait another 20 years? Twenty plus 90 — I’ll be 110!” he said with a wry laugh. (Rodis said there are immigration law provisions that allow the applications to be transferred to a new petitioner without penalty.)
Caleda rubbed his chin, where the shrapnel was lodged on a mission when his guerrilla unit was strafed by a Japanese warplane. His wound was treated by medicine from guava leaves. After the war ended in 1945, he spent 38 years working in forestry before moving to the United States in 1992.
Of the dimming prospects of his sons joining him in Hawaii, Caleda said: “It’s too bad. You cannot expect me to be laughing.”