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At Long Last, Justice for Filipino Vets

December 02, 1990

The longest and hardest fight for Filipino veterans who served in the U.S. military during World War II is finally over--after 45 years. A promise of U.S. citizenship is now becoming a reality for the thousands of surviving Filipinos who fought with Americans in the Pacific. It is long overdue recognition of veterans, unjustly disowned and dishonored.

A provision in the Immigration Act of 1990, which was signed Thursday by President Bush, allows the naturalization of the surviving Filipino veterans, whose average age is now 75. Their long and sad saga began in mid-1941 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to call up the Philippine Army into service for the United States. The Philippines was then a commonwealth of the United States. By 1945, the United States counted 472,000 Filipino soldiers and guerrillas under its command.

Congress passed a bill in 1942 to authorize naturalization for all aliens who served in the U.S. armed forces. But the Japanese occupation of the Philippines interfered. Then the naturalization proceedings were disrupted by what U.S. authorities described as Philippine government concerns over the emigration of young men. The law expired in 1946. There's been a legal battle ever since to restore citizenship rights. Securing equitable veteran benefits, which were cut to half the usual amount in 1946, will be the next battle.

The quest for citizenship is just one chapter of the long civil rights struggle for Filipinos. Many of the Filipinos who served were living in California at the time. In the first draft, 16,000 or 40% of Filipinos living in California registered. A total of 7,000 Filipinos who lived in this state actually served--in two segregated U.S. regiments.

Service was a means to citizenship, long denied despite their residency in United States since the early 1900s. Some 140,000 Filipinos came between 1910 and 1934, working Hawaii's sugar cane fields and California's farm lands. In 1945 Congress extended citizenship to Filipino immigrants whose numbers were down to a trickle until 1965.

Today, Filipinos comprise the largest Asian-American group in the United States. California is home for most, and many war veterans. "Before the United States went to war," a Filipino soldier said in the book "Strangers From a Different Shore," "I felt that I did not belong here. I was a stranger among people who did not understand and had no good reason to understand me and my people. . . . It was a pretty difficult business to be a Filipino in the United States in the years preceding Pearl Harbor." Sadly, it was difficult even after the war.

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