An amendment recently tucked into the proposed immigration overhaul package now being debated in the Senate could have big implications for Filipino Americans. It would put the sons and daughters of Filipino World War II veterans who fought alongside Americans on a fast track to citizenship. It’s among a host of military benefits Filipino veterans have been fighting to secure for decades.
At a big Philippine Independence Day celebration in Los Angeles earlier this month, traditional dancers, festooned in colorful feathers, capped the afternoon with an explosive tribal dance meant to symbolize the start of battle.
A couple of uniformed World War II veterans looked on proudly from the front row as the shield- and spear-wielding dancers whipped and whirled across the stage watching the sky for the Idaw, the mythical hunting bird that is believed will guide warriors to victory.
Franco Arcebal is also something of a fabled warrior. The spry, quick-witted 90-year-old is among the roughly quarter-million former guerrilla soldiers who fought beside U.S. troops during World War II after the Japanese invaded the Philippines.
“I was captured,” recalls Arcebal, sitting in the small office he still keeps in the Los Angeles senior housing complex where he lives. “I was tortured severely by the Japanese. They drown you with water, and they shock me with electricity.”
Arcebal managed to dig his way out of that Japanese prison camp in north Luzon and avoid execution. His wartime experience left his memory and hearing a little shaky. It also ended up shaking his faith in the American government.
The United States offered Filipino soldiers full veteran benefits as an incentive for enlisting. It also said they could become “naturalized” U.S. citizens once the war ended. But shortly after it did end, the benefits were rescinded, something Arcebal didn’t even realize until he was denied care at a veterans clinic after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1980s.
“My God, I risked my life, and the Americans say I have no benefits,” says Arcebal.
In an odd twist, Arcebal earned his citizenship after being sponsored by his adult sons -- both of whom came to the U.S. illegally in the 1980s. The young men were granted amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
“That’s why I devoted my time to work for the return of the benefits that the Filipino veterans have lost,” Arcebal says.
Ever since that day at the clinic, Arcebal has been battling on behalf of Filipino American veterans. That includes campaigning for legislation proposed by Hawaiian Sen. Mazie Hirono, now among the immigration reforms under consideration in the U.S. Senate.
The Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act would put the children of Filipino World War II veterans on a pathway to citizenship while reducing the long wait for a visa. John Aspiras Jr., an 86-year-old veteran, knows what that’s like. He’s been waiting for his daughter’s visa to be approved for years.
“Way back and as of now the paperwork is still being processed. You know it goes with the immigration thing: lots of paperwork,” says Aspiras, who settles into a chair in the laundry room of his apartment high-rise in West Hollywood. He wears big dark sunglasses to shield his eyes following cataract surgery earlier that morning.
Aspiras and thousands of other Filipino war veterans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1990 after passage of another piece of immigration legislation. His youngest daughter, now in her 50s, had no interest in joining him at the time. But Aspiras says as she got older, her attitude changed.
“She was talking with friends (who emigrated to the U.S.), you know; hey, it’s the most generous country in the world, you can do what you want,” says Aspiras. “You want to become rich, you can be rich if you want it, as long as you will do it in the right way, you know.”
Because of an annual per-country cap on green cards, the wait for an adult child’s visa can sometimes stretch over a decade.
Many Filipino war veterans worry that the applications they’ve filed on behalf of their kids will die with them. Franco Arcebal says that 20 years ago a couple hundred guys would show up for his veteran meetings. Now he’s lucky if three or four turn up.
“Many have died, and many of them are invalid,” he says. “They’re not coming here anymore to talk. I am the youngest. I am 90 years old. Can you imagine that?”
But under the Hirono legislation, if a veteran dies with a visa petition already in the pipeline, the application stays alive -- along with his kid’s chance of coming to the United States.
“Because the little quirk of the law is that even if your parents died, your petition won’t die with the veteran. It’s a humanitarian waiver,” says Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans.
Lachica figures about 20,000 Filipino sons and daughters could be eligible if the Hirono legislation is enacted. But with so many Filipino veterans now deceased, and many of their adult children possibly having little interest in coming to the U.S., isn’t family reunification legislation too little too late?
“It is late, but it’s not too little,” says Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center .
“The Filipino American families cherish the possibility of being reunited,” Kwoh says. “It also gives some hope for the future because they may want to bring in their relatives in a legal way over a period of time. So it still is part of the American dream for many of these families.”
The Filipino Veterans Family Reunification amendment won unanimous approval from a bipartisan Senate committee last month. Now it just needs to survive what’s sure to be a more fierce battle over comprehensive immigration reform.