By Jon D. Melegrito
A Capital City Farewell
On May 2015, President Obama used his executive authority by establishing a parole visa program (FWVP) to reunite Filipino WWII veterans with their loved ones. Long visa backlogs, which have separated family members for decades, prompted Obama to order an interagency task force to look into the matter
Joe Montano (right) with Phil Olaya,
Irene Bueno and Erin Oshiro.(Photo by Jon Melegrito)
But what spurred the president’s action was a report issued by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) calling on him to grant parole for children of Filipino War World II veterans. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) finally issued policy guidelines spelling out in detail who are eligible to apply. DHS started accepting applications in June.
For this process to materialize, however, AAJC and other advocacy groups put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes. This included meeting with US Senators who championed veterans’ causes, and enlisting their support to keep the pressure on DHS.
I was in a few of these meetings, representing the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). I joined Erin Oshiro of AAJC and former White House Special Assistant Irene Bueno when we met with staff assistants of Sen. Maize Hirono of Hawaii, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Sen. Kaine’s staff included Phil Olaya and Joe Montano – both top aides of the Virginia Senator. We enlisted Kaine’s support in making sure DHS guidelines did not impose too many restrictions, making it difficult for Filipino veterans to apply.
Joe gave his full attention during the meeting. Having been deeply involved with the Filipino World War II veterans’ struggle for justice for many years, he was of course familiar with their plight. He personally knew many of the veterans, walking the halls of Congress with them as they lobbied for equity benefits. He marched with them in the summer heat and rallied with them in the winter cold. Many of them have since died.
After our meeting, I shared some ampalaya (bitter melon) from my garden. Joe loved ampalaya so I made sure he took some home, along with the recipe for fresh ampalaya salad. He said he will bring them to his mom, who lives in Norfolk, that weekend and make her prepare her favorite dish. “Why don’t you make the salad yourself and surprise your mom,” I kidded. He laughed. The kind of laugh that says
“Yeah, right, my mom would be so delighted.”
We left the meeting assured. Thanks to Joe and Phil, Sen. Kaine played a key role in pushing DHS to adopt the guidelines we proposed. I have no doubt, Joe made the case to his boss with passion and purpose.
That was the last time I met with Joe in an official capacity. He felt at home in Capitol Hill. He exuded charm and confidence among his co-workers. He loved politics. He was in his natural element performing public service.
Joe died suddenly on July 25, peacefully in his sleep, in his home in Arlington, VA. He was only 47.
It was supposed to be a high point in his professional career. That week, his boss was poised to accept his nomination as Hillary’s running mate. Joe was expected at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia the day before the Democratic National Convention opened. Joe did not show up.
Devastated, his co-workers paused to remember Joe. Speaking to Virginia delegates, Sen. Kaine paid tribute to Joe’s organizing skills. He cited a recent visit the two made to a Muslim community center and mosque in Sterling, Va., an event Kaine described as “a classic Joe Montano production — pulling together the beautiful strands of the Virginia rainbow.”
Prior to working for Kaine as his regional director, Joe was active in the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party of Virginia. In 2009, then Governor Kaine appointed Joe to the Virginia Asian Advisory Board.
Messages from top government officials were lavish with praise. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called him “a great friend and advocate.” U.S. Rep. Don Beyer said he was “a voice for the people of Northern Virginia, committed to achieving progress through public service.” U.S. Rep. Mike Honda described his impact on policy issues, “but even more so in the heart of each one of us who had the opportunity to work with him. His inimitable laugh and ever-positive presence brought us so much joy. He made the Democratic Party a welcoming home for so many New Americans and was deeply committed to ensuring they have a chance to participate fully in our electoral process, in their communities and in our Democracy.”
Joe succeeded me as NaFFAA Executive Director in 2000. He was like the son I never had. We were both sons of veterans, who served proudly under the American flag. His father, Jose Montano, is a retired Navy petty officer first class. His mother, Lorie, is a retired nurse.
The day he died, the Capital City which he loved, paused to say farewell. But in the hearts of those he left behind, we know we’ll never ever say goodbye. We will forge on with Joe, fighting our battles, knowing his spirit lives.