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The Promised Land : IN WORLD WAR II, FILIPINOS WERE TOLD IF THEY FOUGHT FOR AMERICA THEY WOULD BECOME U.S. CITIZENS. LITTLE DID THEY KNOW IT WOULD TAKE DECADES BEFORE THAT VOW WAS HONORED.

November 06, 1994

As his troops took a beating in the Pacific, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, using the promise of U.S. citizenship, recruited tens of thousands of Filipino men into the armed services at the outset of World War II. But after the war, the Philippines government, fearing the loss of young men needed to rebuild the country, pressured the United States to rescind the agreement. For the more than 175,000 who had fought, holding off Japanese soldiers in grim jungle battles and suffering torture in prisoner-of-war camps, it was a stunning reversal.

In the decades that followed, a handful of the Filipino soldiers managed to obtain citizenship through lengthy court battles. Finally, after voluminous letter-writing campaigns by the men and their supporters, Congress addressed the problem in 1990 in sweeping immigration reform legislation that extended U.S. citizenship to the estimated 100,000 remaining eligible veterans.

For the men, all now in their mid-60s to mid-90s, it was a bittersweet victory. As the newly qualified veterans began to apply for citizenship, "facilitators" opened shops to assist them, charging as much as $1,000 to complete paperwork that would have cost an applicant $90 to process unassisted, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported. In California, where more than 10,000 Filipino soldiers immigrated, there have been startling charges. Rick Rocamora, who began photographing the veterans in 1992, was told that several soldiers in a Contra Costa County community allegedly had suffered physical abuse at the hands of facilitators. The veterans have filed a civil suit, which goes to trial early next year, claiming that they were held against their will and forced to do manual labor.

Even with the long-awaited citizenship, the veterans have little to celebrate; many are homeless or live in substandard housing, eating in food kitchens. Yet in spite of their ordeal, Rocamora says none have voiced a desire to return to the Philippines. Daily they meet on street corners from San Diego to San Francisco, in shopping malls and senior citizen centers, to reminisce about the war. Seventy-nine-year-old Pablo Dungo displays a U.S. Army uniform on a wall of a San Francisco studio apartment he shares with three other veterans. "When I die, I would like to be buried in that uniform. I am proud of fighting under the U.S. flag," he says. Rick Rocamora is an Oakland-based photographer whose book "Eyes on Cuba" will be published by Temple University Press next year.

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