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WWII's broken promises, families

Immigration law leaves Filipinos who fought for the U.S. separated from sons and daughters.

March 18, 2007|Audrey McAvoy | Associated Press Writer

WAIANAE, HAWAII — Manuel S. Pablo crouched in foxholes to defend the Philippines against invading Japanese soldiers in World War II. He watched a Japanese guard stab one of his comrades to death with a bayonet during the Bataan Death March.

Though Pablo risked his life for the U.S., which controlled the Philippines as a commonwealth at the time, his children can't win approval to live with him in America during his retirement.

Scholars and veteran advocates say the policy reflects decades of neglect, dating to 1946 when Washington broke wartime promises that the soldiers could become U.S. citizens and enjoy the same pension and medical benefits as American troops.

The federal government has since belatedly fulfilled those commitments, but only in the last two decades and only in fits and starts. Some issues remain unresolved, including resident rights for veterans' children. Today, thousands of elderly veterans -- including those wounded in battle and decorated for their efforts -- are left living their last years far from their children and grandchildren.

"I feel lonely whenever I think about them," Pablo, 88, said during an interview on the wooden porch of his home in Waianae. "If only they were here."

Pablo enlisted in the Philippine Scouts, a U.S. Army unit, after a recruiting truck drove through his hometown of San Nicolas in Ilocos Norte province.

When the Imperial Japanese Army invaded on Dec. 8, 1941, he and his fellow soldiers dug foxholes to fight against troops shooting at them from the jungle. He recalls hunkering down between the corpses of fallen comrades, using their bodies to shield himself from bullets.

Other Filipinos formed the resistance against Japanese troops after U.S. forces surrendered at Bataan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur withdrew to Australia uttering the famous phrase, "I shall return."

Belinda Aquino, a University of Hawaii political science professor, said the U.S. "dumped" Filipino veterans after World War II. Their cause then struggled in the postwar years as the U.S. focused on fighting communism.

"The Philippines was just not an important priority for the U.S.," she said.

It took Washington 45 years after the war to offer veterans a proper chance to obtain citizenship. Yet the Immigration Act of 1990 only allowed each veteran to bring one immediate family member to the United States, forcing most to leave their children behind.

The shortcomings of that law have left the sons and daughters of the veterans in a lengthy line for immigration visas along with the many other Filipinos who wish to immigrate to the U.S. On average it's a 20-year wait.

Pablo's three sons and four daughters have been on the list since 1994, two years after he immigrated to Hawaii and became a U.S. citizen.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) this year reintroduced a bill to remedy the situation, allowing children of Filipino World War II veterans to sidestep the immigration waiting list.

"The promise back then was, 'Hey, you're going to become American citizens and you'll get full benefits.' After the war ended, for some reason, the U.S. reneged on that promise," said Jon Yoshimura, an Akaka spokesman.

The Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Akaka is chairman, plans to hold hearings on the issue next month coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the Bataan Death March on April 9.

Pablo could live in the Philippines near his children. But he prefers to live in the U.S., where he can get medical care for post-traumatic stress disorder at veterans' hospitals. The war memories haunt him still.

"When he gets nightmares, he's shaking. He's saying, 'Can you cover my face? They are coming,' " said his wife, Fely Pablo. "He says, 'The Japanese are coming!' "

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