After years of waiting, Hawaii’s Filipino World War II veterans like 89-year-old Artemio Caleda are again raising their hopes for a change in immigration law that would make it easier to bring their relatives to be near them in their old age.
With both champions of this issue, former Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, no longer in Congress, Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa on Tuesday introduced measures in both chambers that could pave the way for the veterans to be reunited with their families.
Hirono, in an interview, said she’s spoken with members of a bipartisan group of senators working on an immigration proposal about including the provision and she’s hopeful it will be an aspect of any package that’s passed. She was unsure, however, how it will fare in the Republican House.
“Keeping families together should be a guiding principle of immigration reform,” said Hirono, who sits on both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration that will mark up immigration reform legislation. The bill, she said, “allows for the brave veterans to be reunited with their children.”
However, time is running out for veterans, who’ve been petitioning for their children to join them in the United States, in some cases for decades, said Caleda, former president of the Fil-Am WWII Veterans of Hawaii.
Hanabusa said in a statement that only 6,000 of the original 250,000 veterans are still alive. “As their numbers dwindle, so does our opportunity to do the right thing for them and their families. We must act now for these courageous and honorable men,” Hanabusa said.
The effort is part of the decades-long struggle of Filipinos who fought alongside U.S. troops in the Philippines during WWII to be recognized for their efforts, said said Lillian Galedo, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice, an Oakland, Ca.-based advocacy group
About 250,000 Filipinos were incorporated in the U.S. Army under Gen. Douglas McArthur in the months before Pearl Harbor. They fought alongside U.S. troops during the war, Galedo said. When some were captured, like American troops they were forced on the infamous Bataan Death March.
While other non-citizens who fought with Americans troops during the war were granted citizenship after the war, the United States did not grant the same to Filipino veterans, partly because the Philippines had gained independence in 1946.
“Part of the logic in the U.S. Congress was that the Philippines was no longer a colony, so why should we make them U.S. citizens,” Galedo said. It wasn’t until 1990 that the veterans were given citizenship in the 1990 Immigration Act.
“The Filipino veterans got the shaft,” Galedo said.
After the change in immigration law, thousands of former veterans immigrated to the United States, Galedo said, partly to claim their citizenship, but also, like many immigrants, to seek “a better life.”
However, Hirono said, “We didn’t provide them a way to be reunited with their children in the Philippines.”
A limit on how many Filipinos can enter the country each year has created a backlog of more than 10 years on citizenship applications. The State Department is only now beginning to process visa applications filed in 1998, said department spokeswoman Beth Finan.
“The children have been wanting to reunite with, generally, their fathers for decades,” Hirono said.
Both Hirono and Hanabusa’s bills would exempt the relatives of WWII Filipino veterans from yearly immigration numbers, allowing their applications to be processed immediately.
No numbers were available on the number of relatives of Hawaii Filipino veterans would be affected. But according to an estimate by the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans, the bill could allow 20,000 children of the veterans to immigrate to the U.S.
“This measure is an important step toward fulfilling our obligations to these brave veterans, who fought bravely for our nation during World War II,” said Hanabusa. “When we needed friends in Asia during the war, the Filipinos didn’t hesitate. They stood up in our country’s time of need, and it is our responsibility to stand up for them.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, a co-sponsor of Hirono’s bill, said: “It is a critical piece of legislation crafted by Senators Akaka and Inouye that will honor our Filipino veterans that have served this country so bravely by ensuring they are united with their families by removing immigration barriers.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who co-sponsored Hanabusa’s bill, also said in a statement, “We must address family reunification and the unique immigration issues in Hawai‘i within the comprehensive national reform … TBy removing barriers in the immigration process for their children, we can reunite these heroes with their families while there is still time.”
“It is very, very needed because time is of the essence,” Caleda said. “The veterans are growing older and older. They’re very weak and sick. They are passing away one after the other without their sons and daughters at their bedsides.”
Caleda, who served as an intelligence officer during the war, said he has three sons and 14 grandchildren waiting to immigrate from the Philippines. He wants to spend his final days with them.
“I’m 89. I can rightly say that I’m waiting to be buried. I need my children at my side,” he said. He estimated there are about 600 Filipino veterans who served in World War II in Hawaii.
Francisco Obina, another Filipino WWII veteran, said others are hoping their children will immigrate to help care for them. “They cannot work anymore because of their old age,” said Obina.
The bills are similar to several proposed over the years by Inouye and Akaka. Those proposals, though, have been thwarted over the years.
However, after Republican defeats in the last election, due in part to Latino voters’ opposition to their immigration stances, both houses of Congress are moving forward with bipartisan immigration proposals.
A framework of the Senate’s plan released last week
would allow illegal immigrants who pass a background check to be eligible for probationary legal status that would allow them to live and work in the U.S. They would be able to apply for permanent legal status after improvements are made in border security.
While details of the Senate proposal have not yet been released, the framework said also the immigration system has “created substantial visa backlogs which force families to live apart, which incentivizes illegal immigration… We must reduce backlogs in the family and employment visa categories so that future immigrants view our future legal immigration system as the exclusive means for entry into the United States.”
Two of the “Gang of Eight” senators writing the proposal, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Robert Menendez, D-NJ, have been co-sponsors of previous bills to make it easier for families of Filipino veterans to immigrate. Spokesmen for both senators did not return calls or emails.
Another member of the group, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second highest-ranking Democrat, also reportedly promised Inouye before his death that he’d continue looking after the Filipino WWII veterans issue.
Mabuhay Radio, a Filipino community website, reported that Durbin, at a community meeting in Chicago in January, described a conversation he had with Inouye.
“Senator Durbin matter-of-factly quoted Senator Inouye as telling him: ‘Help the Filipino WWII veterans and continue to help them and I told him I would.’ The senior senator said Senator Inouye was one of his best friends in the U.S. Senate,” the report said.
In a statement released through Hirono’s office on Tuesday, Eric Lachica, Executive Director for the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans said: “The Hirono bill will keep the approved immigration petitions and hopes of our Filipino American World War II heroes alive after they fade away. We are glad Senator Hirono continues to fight for the legacy of Senators Akaka and Inouye for their Filipino comrades.”
Caleda said he “feels positive” about the bill’s chances this year. Others, like Garcia, are less optimistic.
“The Republicans have been very recalcitrant about immigration,” he said.
“I don’t think the chances for immigration reform are as great as people say because Congress is so polarized, ” said Arturo Garcia, national coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Justice for Filipino American Veterans.
Eliza Escano, Hawaii coordinator for Justice for Fillipino American Veterans, said she became aware of the issue when she was 16. “It’s just unbelievable to me that now I’m a grown woman with two children, and they’re still fighting for what’s right.”