Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day: Another Congress, another try to pass the Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act

Filipino veterans who fought with Americans are still waiting for justice.
MEMORIAL DAY, 2015  -- old Filipino men who fought for America during World War II don their medals and old military caps. They stand at attention and salute the American flag that they once fought under despite a string of broken promises and disappointing denials by politicians. Many of them know there is one more battle to fight despite their aging bodies and dwindling ranks.

The latest round in the struggle for equity for the Filipino veterans of WWII began when Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii) introduced his first bill to Congress in January by keeping his promise to Filipino veterans by introducing the Filipino Veteran Family Reunification Act of 2015. 

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
UPDATE: President Obama opens the door for vets' family reunification
“I chose this bill as my first to introduce in the new Congress for two reasons,” Takai said in a statement. “First, to make good on our obligation to take care of our Filipino veterans of World War II by helping them to reunite with their children. And second, to make good on my promise to work in a bipartisan manner with my colleagues across the aisle on issues where we find common ground.”

The bill seeks to pave the way for Filipino World War II veterans to reunite with their families. In 1941, with assurances that they would receive full veteran's benefits for their service, more than 250,000 Filipino soldiers fought alongside U.S. troops during America's darkest hour.

Despite my 10 years working with the Philippine News, the most widely-read Filipino American newspaper, my father was more deeply immersed in the Filipino American community than I ever was. In the 1960s, he joined with his friends like Philippine News publisher Alex Esclamado, the UFW's Larry Itliong and Andy Imutan and other survivors of the Bataan Death March to launch the long battle for justice for their comrades who were still in the Philippines without any benefits, recognition and justice. They enlisted the aid of sympathetic lawmakers, presented their case to lawyers, the courts, and to the American public. Despite their hard work they encountered false hopes, blind alleys and rejection on Capitol Hill. 

It wasn't until 1990 when President George H. Bush signed the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, part of an immigration bill, were they able to claim a victory allowing many - but not all - of their friends to gain U.S. citizenship.

To understand the full extent of their frustration, you need to know the background that led to that moment.

After Pearl Harbor, by executive order, President Roosevelt put the Army of the Philippine Commonwealth under the command of the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFEE). Over 250,000 Filipinos into the U.S.-led armed forces while ignoring the Japanese plea of "Asia for Asians." Filipinos fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American soldiers in the defense of the Philippines in the epic battles of Bataan & Corrigidor. The blood of Filipinos flowed with the brave U.S. defenders in the jungles of the Philippines.

The next year, Congress passed a law authorizing the naturalization of all aliens serving in United States forces. Immigration officers were sent to various war zones, but the Philippines, which by then was under Japanese occupation, was excluded. 

After the liberation of the Philippines, naturalization proceedings finally began in Manila but were soon halted. U.S. officials said the Filipino government feared a mass emigration of able-bodied men, but many Filipinos today say that was a pretext for not according citizenship and benefits to the veterans. The naturalization law expired at the end of 1946.

After the war, that promise was broken by Congress when it past the Rescission Acts, which pulled the rug out from underneath the Filipino veterans and reneged on Roosvelt's promise.

Filipino WWII veterans still fighting for equity.
When President Truman signed the ``Rescission Acts'' in 1946 he stated: ``Filipino Army veterans are nationals of the United States. They fought with gallantry and courage under the most difficult conditions during the recent conflict. Their officers were commissioned by us. Their official organization, the Army of the Philippine Commonwealth, was taken into the Armed Forces of the United States by Executive Order of President Roosevelt. That order has never been revoked or amended. I consider it a moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of the Filipino Army veteran.''

Its difficult not to believe that an element of racism played into the actions of Congress, especially when in 1973, Congress granted citizenship to resistance fighters from Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Congress' treatment of the Czechoslovakian and Polish veterans is inconsistent with the discrimination suffered by the Filipino veterans. No doubt both the Central European soldiers and their Filipino counterparts played important roles in their respective battlegrounds during World War II but the Filipinos should have been treated equally, if not given a leg up, since the Philippines during WWII was an American colony and they fought as U.S. nationals.
RELATED: California law review - Filipino Veterans Equity Movement 
In the late 1960s and 1970s, as Filipino Americans began realizing a need for unity and having a national voice, the one issue that united everyone was justice for the Filipino WWII vets. 

After decades of effort, President George H. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which offered citizenship to some Filipino veterans of World War II but the bill did not include their immediate families. 

Since then, a series of bills have gradually expanded the eligibility of Filipino veterans, offered compensation and benefits. One of those bills allowed the immigration of the immediate family members and "young" children but excluded the "older" children. 

By then, the WWII veterans were in their 60s and 70s so many had "older" children who were in their 30s and 40s. We need to understand that In the Filipino culture, family is paramount and the concept of "family" is the entire extended family. A nephew is treated as a son. A cousin is a brother. An uncle is seen as a second father. An elderly grandfather is accorded the utmost respect. To exclude the older children is a grave omission in the eyes of those elderly veterans.

Takai's bill and its counterpart in the Senate seeks to remedy that final injustice for the few surviving veterans who are now in their 80s and 90s.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced similar bills previously, including in 2013, but none has advanced through Congress. Two years ago, the measure was included in a comprehensive immigration bill approved by the Senate, but the GOP-controlled House killed that legislation by refusing to vote on it. The prospects of the bill advancing in a GOP-majority Congress is not given a great chance.
RELATED: Heres a video capsule about the veterans
Nevada's Rep. Joe Heck, who co-sponsored Takai's bill, added: "Like all veterans, our brave Filipino-American World War II veterans deserve to live out their years surrounded by their family members. This bill will help make that a reality by granting their children an exemption in the immigration process and expediting their path toward U.S. citizenship. It's the least we could do for these men who served alongside American troops and helped us win the war in the Pacific theater."

This Memorial Day, let's remember those surviving Filipino vets and the many, many more who have fallen while serving America and those who died before seeing justice delivered.