One Snowy Day in February
By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
The month of February will be remembered for, among other things, more snow than we've ever had in three years. The most recent storm shut down the city for a couple of days.
We hardly get any in our neck of the woods, so when it does this town goes bonkers. Even a dusting
Above Photo: DHS Legal Counsel Rob Silver (L) responds to Loida Lewis and JT Mallonga who urged DHS to grant TPS to Filipino nationals.
drives people crazy. So you can imagine what 12 to 16 inches can do to their state of mind. Naturally, there was a rush to grocery stores to stock up on supplies (i.e. food, milk, toilet paper). Home Depot ran out of salt. And buses stopped running.
Metrorail managed somehow to get the trains moving. I had to go downtown that Thursday to attend a meeting at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I couldn't dig my car out so walking two miles to the nearest Metro and taking the train was the only way.
Although the Federal government was closed, DHS officials did not cancel our appointment made earlier by Loida Nicolas Lewis, NaFFAA National Chair Emeritus and now National Chair of the US Pinoys for Good Governance (USPGG). Thanks to her connections with some high level officials, we got a much-needed conversation instead of a cancellation. The meeting included JT Mallonga, president of the Filipino American Legal Defense & Education Fund (FALDEF), myself representing NaFFAA and Angie Cruz representing USPGG.
A week earlier, Loida ran into DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson at a social event. He remembered her, having worked years earlier with the late Reginald Lewis, founder of TLC Beatrice. Renewed acquaintance led to the appointment.
This is significant given the role DHS plays in granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Filipino nationals. DHS ultimately makes the call – not the White House, not the State Department, not even Congress. Of course it helps if all key players to weigh in.
Thus, as JT puts it, we need a full court press on all fronts. The Philippine Government made its request within 30 days of the storm – thanks to the hard work of Amb. Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. After securing President Aquino's consent, activists of a nationwide coalition, Relief 2 Recovery Movement, enlisted the support of more than 60 US Senators and Representatives from both parties. NaFFAA, FALDEF and USPGG leaders led by Loida, also met with senior State Department officials in late January.
The Ambassador himself has been lobbying State and Homeland Security officials, as well as influential members of Congress. He describes as inaccurate reports that the Aquino administration is less than enthusiastic in pursuing TPS. He concedes, however, that President Aquino is understandably worried about the implications of rejection.
But with President Obama slated to visit Manila in April, Amb. Cuisia is hoping DHS will act favorably soon. Loida puts it even more bluntly: "It will be embarrassing for both heads of state if TPS is denied. It will also be a set-back to US-Philippine relations."
One political observer, however, believes otherwise. In an interview with Maricar Hampton of FilAm.net, former diplomat Sonny Busa says the Philippines was not devastated to the extent other countries, like Haiti, that received TPS have. In other words, the entire country was not wiped out – a key statutory requirement. Busa adds that the Philippines is doing fine, economically, with a robust tourist industry.
So absorbing dislocated families from Leyte would not be a problem. And then there's US politics. With immigration reform a contentious issue among Republicans, the Obama administration may want to "tread slowly" on this one. So as not to anger conservatives who are adamantly opposed to giving benefits to undocumented immigrants.
But the arguments for TPS are solid and convincing. JT stresses the "humanitarian relief" factor. Even if the typhoon was confined to the central islands, the whole country is affected. There are now thousands of refugees pouring into the north and they all have to be resettled. A long-term rebuilding, now estimated to cost $8 billion, impacts the whole nation.
With all these in mind, the meeting at DHS on a snowy day in February, takes on greater significance.
With a heavy blizzard forecasted to blanket the area with more than a foot of snow, Loida and her team drove from New York the night before. I booked them at a downtown hotel not far from DHS headquarters.
After brunch, we all drove to our appointment, allowing enough time to navigate slippery streets. Fortunately, there was hardly any traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. We got to DHS in plenty of time and made it through security checkpoints. Rob Silver, Legal Counsel to DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, ushered us in to a conference room near the Secretary's office. He listened attentively, assured us that DHS is fully aware of the situation in the Philippines, the growing support for TPS from national leaders and the grassroots campaign by hundreds of community groups.
Loida and JT emphasized that we're only asking for 18 months – time for undocumented Filipinos to help the relief effort without being harassed or deported. And we're only talking of 270,000 Filipinos, many of whom may not even apply for TPS at all.
I'm crossing my fingers that DHS okays TPS by the time this magazine comes out.