WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rudy Panaglima, a Filipino World War II veteran, and his wife have two of their four children living near them in the United States.

But the other two are back in the Panaglima family’s home country, the Philippines.

While vets like Panaglima were granted U.S. citizenship in recognition of their service, their children were not. That has led to sometimes decades of separation due to severe backlogs in the U.S. immigration system.

On Wednesday, that began to change, thanks to an executive order from President Barack Obama last year and efforts by U.S. senators to help reunite the families.

Filipino WWII vet Rudy Panaglima speaks as Senators Tim Kaine and Sen Mazie Hirono looks on at Capitol presser. 9 june 2016
Filipino World War II vet Rudy Panaglima speaks at a press conference Thursday at the U.S. Capitol as Sens. Tim Kaine and Mazie Hirono look on. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Thursday, at the Mansfield Room in the U.S. Capitol, the implementation of the new program was celebrated by three senators with sizable Filipino-American populations in their districts.

It was led by Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, whose first bill in the U.S. Senate in 2013 was the Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act.

The act, which became part of a bill on comprehensive immigration reform, passed the Senate only to die in the House.

The president’s action now permits applications for reunification to be processed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a program that could impact as many as 6,000 surviving Filipino WWII veterans and their spouses.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Sen Tim Kain and Senator Mazie Hirono , veterans, and community advocates hold press conference to announce the implementation of new program to reunite aging Filipino World War II veterans with their families at the Capitol. 9 june 2016
Democratic Leader Harry Reid said the support of Filipino-Americans was essential to his success many years ago as a young politician in Nevada. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the recognition is long overdue. He recalled how he learned of the large Filipino population in Nevada, many employed in the large service industry, when he was first running for office.

“They struggled all these decades,” he said. “Why still? There is not a good answer.”

Reid urged eligible veterans to apply as soon as possible for the reunion program, because “time is really passing by too quickly to help those people.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., reminded press conference attendees that generations of Filipino-Americans have worked and lived in the Hampton Roads naval base area in his state. They helped to build Camp David for President Hoover, although the were called “Filipino boys.”

Filipino Veterans Press conference wide. Capitol. 9 june 2016
The press conference at the Mansfield Room attracted veterans, community advocates and, of course, lots of media. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kaine said the term was diminutive and derogatory, given in part the fact that the men were service personnel serving the country.

As welcome as this week’s development may be, the senators and community advocates say more needs to be done.

Christopher Kang, the executive director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said at the press conference, “We shouldn’t have to be here today. We need to have comprehensive immigration reform.”

Still, Panaglima, the Filipino veteran, expressed gratitude for the change in circumstances that could allow him to see his two children again soon.

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