An Urgent Plea to Department of Homeland Security
By Jon D. Melegrito
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret) hands out certificates of appreciation to Filipino World War II Veterans (from left) Jesse Baltazar, Celestino Almeda, Rey Cabacar and Rudy Panaglima at a recent community event in Washington DC. Panaglima, 85, is among those waiting for his children to join him here in the U.S. (Photo by Jon Melegrito)
The Department of Homeland Security is once again being pressured by immigrant rights activists to act quickly and decisively on an issue that’s literally a life and death matter for a small group of people: Filipino World War II veterans.
In July, President Obama issued an executive order granting parole visas to children of veterans who have been waiting for as many as 20 years to reunite with their families here in the United States.
The good news: Pending visa applications that have been approved will now be fast-tracked on a case-by-case basis, allowing these children to come to the U.S. sooner than later, possibly within six to eight months.
The bad news: While this program will benefit the children of Filipino veterans who are still alive, it does not extend to their widows, let alone to the children themselves if both parents have passed away.
Still, this humanitarian gesture by the Obama administration is most welcome. White House officials recognize that the 6,000 veterans residing in the U.S. have only a few years to live. Thus, the urgency to grant these parole visas.
But issuing the edict is one thing. Implementing it is another.
As it happens, it’s now up to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement both the letter and spirit of this administrative action.
Yes, it‘s the same DHS that was supposed to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Filipino nationals who are affected by Typhoon Haiyan. It will be three years in November and DHS has yet to act on an equally urgent humanitarian matter. Presumably, implementing TPS for the Philippines poses an “administrative nightmare” for DHS and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services because they can’t quite pin down exactly how many Filipino nationals should receive this immigration relief.
The hope is that DHS will not be confronted with the same administrative challenges that TPS posed. After all, we’re talking of a much smaller number, and a much simpler situation.
Understandably, the families who have been waiting all these years are anxious. I’ve personally gotten a number of e-mails from the Philippines and phone calls from across the US inquiring about when the application for parole visas will begin.
The DHS needs a two-month comment period on the executive order before it can begin accepting applications. The best case scenario will be before the end of the year, once the implementation guidelines are in place. DHS, of course, will coordinate with USCIS (which determines who the eligible veterans are) and the State Department, which is the gate keeper for visa applications.
Meanwhile, AAPI advocates – notably the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) – have been walking the halls of Congress to enlist the support of allies like Sen. Maize Hirono (D-HI) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) to press DHS to expedite this program. Republicans, in principle, are opposed to executive actions like DACA and DAPA – immigration relief programs for minor children of undocumented immigrants and undocumented parents of children who are US citizens or permanent residents. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is a sympathetic Republican who may join Hirono and Kaine. She has a large Filipino constituency in her state and has been supportive of Filipino veterans issues.
While it’s a long shot, advocates are also pressing DHS to include widows of Filipino veterans since the original petitioner is dead, and families who are already here in the U.S. but out of status. This, in addition to making the eligibility process as simple as possible by taking an expansive view. For instance, it shouldn’t be too difficult and complicated for a veteran to prove record of service, either through discharge papers, affidavits or naturalization documents. These are barriers currently facing veterans who have filed claims under the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) Fund.
And then there’s the political landscape. DACA and DAPA were vulnerable to political attack, that’s why these expanded programs are still on hold, thanks to a Texas Judge who granted an injunction in February temporarily halting its implementation.
Family reunification in the case of Filipino World War II veterans, who remain unrecognized for their services to this country, should be a bi-partisan issue, and not subject to politics. Sadly, there are members of Congress who still maintain that the sacrifices of Filipino veterans were not in the service of the United States. These lawmakers have conveniently ignored the historical fact that the Japanese Imperial Army would not have invaded and occupied the Philippines were it not a U.S. territory at the time war broke out in 1941. Filipino soldiers were in fact recruited into the USAFEE and sworn to military duty by President Franklin Roosevelt. They fought under the American Flag.
It’s been more than 70 years and America has yet to recognize them for who they are and what they did for this country. Soon they will all be gone and not even a ‘thank you’ from the nation for whom they risked their lives to serve.