Filipino war veteran Rodolfo Bustamante beamed as he took the oath of U.S. citizenship Monday, 41 years after he had fought for the U.S. Army in the Philippines and had begun his quest to become an American citizen.
Bustamante and about 60 other Filipino veterans filed suit against the Immigration and Naturalization Service in April, hoping to get a federal judge to hear their cases.
They claimed that although they were eligible for citizenship because they had enlisted in the U.S. military during World War II, the United States withdrew its naturalization examiners from the Philippines before the soldiers could fill out the necessary paper work.
The veterans filed suit to force the INS into federal court to explain why the cases are still unresolved. In a half-day hearing Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Manuel Real listened to testimony from nine veterans as scores of others, some wearing their medals, filled the courtroom and the hall outside. Real continued the hearing until Wednesday, but during the proceeding, swore in 12 new citizens whose applications had been approved by the INS. Some of the new citizens were veterans who had sued the INS.
"Somebody should go to Congress and pass a private bill to let them (the veterans) in," said Michael J. Creppy, district counsel for the INS. Creppy said that despite the 40-year delay, the INS is "not lagging" in processing the veteran's citizenship applications.
"They are applying for a benefit under an expired act, 40 years later," argued Stephen Sholomson, general attorney for the INS. He said some of the veterans suing the INS are ineligible because they joined the U.S. military too late or failed to apply before they left active service.
"I joined the U.S. Army because I really wanted to be a citizen," said Severino Abela, a veteran who lives in Cypress. "I fought for freedom." A discouraged Abela left the court late Monday.
All the men who filed suit against the INS initially served in the Philippine armed forces and later heeded President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call to join the U.S. Army.
Most of the 175,000 Filipinos who served the United States were naturalized after proving they had filed for citizenship before 1947. But an estimated 1,600 veterans are still trying to become citizens, according to immigration attorneys.
Although the enlisted men were promised citizenship, the U.S. government, bowing to pressure from a Filipino government that feared a loss of manpower, withdrew its naturalization examiners in October, 1945. They returned 10 months later, in August, 1946, but by then most of the men had been mustered out of the Army and were unable to qualify for citizenship because they were no longer on active duty, according to Philip D. Abramowitz, an attorney representing the veterans.
"This is the biggest group (of veterans) I've had," Abramowitz said. "And it's the first time the government has fought me."
Jose Ibarra Salcedo, president of the United Filipino American Veterans of World War II, said the group filed the suit as a "last resort."
Salcedo, who was granted citizenship in 1982, said he formed the 500-member organization two years ago when he realized that his "comrades were still waiting" to become citizens.
"We never asked for citizenship. It was offered to us," said Mariano Robles, who has a home in Westminster but lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. "We went to different places to get the forms and couldn't get them. After independence in 1946, we were mustered out of the Army."
"I have already raised my hand and pledged to obey the Constitution of the United States," said Nicomedes Sabio, who served in the U.S. Army from 1946 to 1949.
Sabio applied for citizenship in 1978 and has asked the INS to process his claim every year since. "I pay my taxes to Uncle Sam and Sacramento," said Sabio in an interview before the hearing.
"It is very depressing," said his wife, Alicia.