A Long Road to Justice
This Veterans Day, we celebrate the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II Veterans. But 70 years later, many are still waiting to be reunited with their families.
by Marita Etcubanez
On October 25, the Congressional Gold Medal was officially presented to the Filipino veterans of World War II. While the ceremony included many tributes to the valor and sacrifices made by Filipinos who answered the United States’ call to arms during World War II, the speaker who received the most rapt attention was Celestino Almeda, who had been chosen to represent the veterans. Mr. Almeda’s proud announcement that he is a “one-hundred-year-old veteran of World War II” was met by a thunderous ovation. Mr. Almeda and the other veterans had waited over 70 years for this honor to be bestowed, and many had passed away in the intervening years. The veterans, the many family members of veterans, and others in attendance clearly were very proud to see this day come at last.
But even as we celebrated, we knew that we would need to continue to advocate so that our veterans would not remain, in Mr. Almeda’s words “underappreciated and unrecognized.”
Advocacy for the Filipino World War II veterans has been needed on multiple fronts. During World War II, then-president Roosevelt promised that Filipino nationals would be recognized for their service to the U.S. and the Philippines, which was at the time part of the United States. Unfortunately, the U.S. failed to keep its promise. In the decades since, advocates have sought to right this injustice. In addition to the campaign for the Congressional Gold Medal, the community has fought for the veterans to be recognized with U.S. citizenship, veterans’ benefits, and, more recently, to be reunited with their families.
The Filipino World War II Veterans Parole (FWVP) program is a policy that went into effect in June 2016 that allows family members of Filipino WWII veterans to come to the United States and wait here for their visas to be approved. The policy change was enacted as another long-overdue measure of justice for the veterans, in recognition of their “extraordinary contributions and sacrifices.” The hope is that in reuniting the veterans with their families, the veterans will have the benefit of the love and care of their family members in their old age.
How is it that the veterans are still waiting to be reunited with their families? Many of the Filipino veterans were only able to become U.S. citizens due to legislation passed in 1990. As soon as they were able, many of the veterans filed petitions for their family members in the Philippines so that their families could immigrate to the United States.
In our current immigration system, since only a limited number of visas are available each year, and each country is only allotted a percentage of those visas, individuals in the Philippines who seek to immigrate to the U.S. generally have to wait at least 10 years — and as long as 23 years — for a family immigrant visa to become available.
There are currently nearly 4.3 million family-based visa applications on the waiting list. This is what we are talking about when we talk about our “broken immigration system.” This is why parole is necessary to enable families stuck in the visa backlogs to be able to come to the United States.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC has long advocated for reforms to our immigration system, including lifting up the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by our broken immigration system. With respect to the Filipino WWII veterans, following the 1990 law that granted them U.S. citizenship, there have been legislative efforts to help expedite the immigration process for their family members. None of these, including proposals in the immigration bill that was passed by the Senate in 2013, S.744, have been enacted into law.
As we celebrate and honor the Filipino veterans who fought under the American flag during World War II, we also must continue to support their right to be reunited with their families through the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole program.
As of March 31, 2017, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had accepted 361 applications under the FWVP program. According to the most recent information available, USCIS reports that 52 applications have been approved and 276 are still pending. It is vital that the veterans who have applied are not kept waiting any longer to be reunited with their families. The United States government cannot break faith with the veterans again as it did in 1946.
We expect that more applications have been filed since the last report from USCIS. Further, there are veterans and their families who still hope to apply, and who are working to compile the required documentation of the veteran’s military service and proof of familial relationships, demonstrate that they have the financial means to support their families as they adjust to life in the United States, and meet the other requirements to apply under FWVP. If anything, greater outreach is needed to inform eligible veterans and their families about the parole program. We also need to find ways to make legal assistance more readily available to help the veterans and their families complete their applications and navigate the immigration process.
There are estimated to be fewer than 6,000 surviving Filipino World War II veterans in the United States. The youngest of these veterans are in their late 80s. They deserve to have the care and support of family members here in the United States. Further, they have earned the right to be reunited with their families. Advancing Justice | AAJC is proud to have played a major role in bringing the parole program to fruition. We hope that USCIS will continue to prioritize the reunification of the Filipino veterans with their families and approach the further implementation of the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole program with renewed fervor.
Marita Etcubanez is the director of strategic initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.