By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
"So, what are you waiting for?"
That was the question running through our minds when Filipino American community leaders met with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on Aug. 13. They had requested Philippine Amb. Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. to convene the community's top national leaders for a "dialogue." Which was rather unusual because it's been community leaders seeking to meet with these officials to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Filipino nationals. And now here they are coming to us.
And so we gathered at the Philippine Embassy. Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chair of US Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG), newly-elected NaFFAA National Chair JT Mallonga and Father Patrick Longalong, Vice President of the National Association of Filipino Priests drove in from New York. Lawyer & columnist Rodel Rodis flew in from San Francisco. Aquilina Versoza, Exec. Director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California took the Red Eye from LA. Cornelio and Evelyn Natividad and Evelyn Natividad, also of USP4GG, took flight from Chicago. The rest of us live in and around DC: Eric Lachica (USP4GG); Grace Valera and Jessie Gatchalian, co-executive directors of the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC); Bing Branigin and myself (NaFFAA).
Top Photo: DHS officials (L) and Fil-Am leaders and Embassy officials (R) discuss on the topic of TPS. (Photo by Jon Melegrito)
The Ambassador was kind enough to arrange lunch, giving us time to prepare our thoughts to make sure we're on the same page. We agreed on 200,000 undocumented Filipino nationals, not a million as MHC has published. We were also united in our ask for full TPS.
Promptly at 2pm, DHS officials marched in to Philippine Territory: DHS Asst. Secretary for International Affairs Alan Bersin, Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) Director Leon Rodriguez and CIS Chief of Staff Juliet Choi.
At first, we thought they were going to give us the nod, that TPS has – finally – been granted. After all, it's been more than 10 months since Typhoon Haiyan, the worst storm in recorded history, devastated the country. That meant about 200,000 undocumented Filipino immigrants would be directly affected if, for some reason, they were deported to a disaster-plagued country, thus preventing them from returning safely.
Under current law, DHS may grant TPS when one of three circumstances occurs: 1) an "ongoing armed conflict" that creates unsafe conditions for returning nationals; 2) a natural disaster that makes the state temporarily unable to accept the return of its nationals; 3) "extraordinary and temporary" conditions in a state that prevent its nationals from returning safely.
Well, we didn't get the good news. So we were disappointed yet again. We thought it would happen on July 4th, when we celebrate US-Philippine Friendship. We expected President Obama to announce it during his May visit to Manila. Our hearts even fluttered with hope that it would happen as early as Valentine's Day, given how much Filipinos love America and vice versa. But no flowers and no chocolates.
And it's not as if we didn't pull all stops to make it happen: petitions, demonstrations, "tweeter storms," e-mail blitzes, phone calls and meetings with Congressional leaders and top officials in the State Department and DHS. Two weeks after the November 2013 storm, calls for TPS gained steam as a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen joined national immigrant rights groups urging the White House to approve the proposal. It was a rare instance of Democrats and Republicans agreeing on something.
Meanwhile, House Republicans were dragging their feet, resorting to all kinds of delaying tactics to prevent comprehensive immigration reform bill from being passed.
In March, FilAm leaders led by Loida, braved a winter storm to meet with DHS Legal Counsel Rob Silver. At this meeting, Loida even went so far to suggest that there will be "repercussions" to US-Philippine relations if President Obama fails to deliver TPS before his Manila visit.
August came and President Obama is reported to be mulling "deferrals" for millions of undocumented. Frustrated with inaction by House Republicans, Obama vowed to unleash a torrent of executive orders that would give undocumented immigrants work permits and relief from deportation.
With this backdrop, DHS officials reached out to the Filipino community for the first time. Interestingly, their comments and questions were instructive. Which may explain the delay.
This from Asst. Sec. Bersin: "This is a matter that is under consideration by Secretary Jeh Johnson. There are no specific deadlines but this does require the kind of outreach, time and consideration that it is being given."
Director Rodriguez was more interested in the number of people affected, how many in the US are "connected to them," and how many of the potential TPS beneficiaries came from the devastated islands.
Towards the end of the dialogue, I posed a question to Asst. Sec. Bersin: "I understand that for TPS to be granted, the statutory requirements must be met, particularly on the matter of the Philippines' own capacity to take back and absorb its citizens. Having heard all the arguments presented to you over the last 9 months, including your own thorough research and the opinions provided by the State Department, what else do you need in order for you to make that decision?"
The room erupted in laughter after Asst. Sec. Bersin, in response, facetiously compared me to a "prosecutor" grilling them for answers. I assured him I was not a lawyer, but one of the many leaders across the country who simply want to know the final answer.
Seriously. What are you guys waiting for?