Becoming American

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This week, I become an American citizen, 27 years after coming to the United States.

Like most immigrants, I emigrated to the United States for its promise of opportunity, freedom, and equality. My parents had sacrificed much to send my brother and me to the best private school in the Philippines, but it was not enough to secure financial stability, much less upward mobility. As a young gay man, I was stifled by the cultural and social expectations of the time. I decided that moving to New York City would allow my family to save face and me to live and love openly and with integrity, while pursuing opportunities waiting for me. Like millions of other immigrants, I shared the American Dream of prosperity and happiness.

The seeds of this dream were planted over a century ago, when the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898. The fact is, immigration is an unintended consequence of imperialism. At the turn of the twentieth century, Filipino farm workers were recruited to provide cheap labor in Hawaiian sugar plantations. At the same time, Filipino students were sent to the U.S. mainland to be educated as future administrators of the Philippines. Life for these men was difficult but they persevered and many stayed, building new lives that seemed golden to many back home, including my maternal grandfather.

Lolo Pedong loved everything American. He named his first child, my mother Georgena, after the first president of the United States. He regaled us, his grandchildren, with World War II stories and praised MacArthur for keeping his promise and saving Filipinos from Japanese perdition. He repeatedly told us the story of young George Washington and the poor cherry tree.

It is no surprise then that my uncle settled in rural Mississippi in the 1960s to serve poor whites, blacks, and Choctaws as their general physician. Thanks to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, he was then able to bring my grandparents and unmarried uncle and aunts to the United States in the 1970s. This change in immigration policy also permitted my paternal aunts to stake their fortune in America. But the law had its limits and my family remained in the Philippines.

Nonetheless, my family never stopped gazing at America. How could we not? Life under the Marcos dictatorship was hopeless and good things came from my aunts and uncles in America: U.S. dollars and balikbayan boxes filled with mac and cheese boxes, Spam tins, Hershey’s chocolate, name-brand clothes, and other American delights. We were weaned on Sesame Street and entertained by Hollywood.

On July 7, 1990, armed with my parents’ blessing and $1500, I came to America and never looked back. I put myself through grad school, received my Master’s degree, then my doctoral degree, I’ve had three careers in small business, nonprofits, and now, in academia. I met and married the man of my dreams and we live comfortably in the greatest city in the world.

But until this week, something was missing. A sense of stability and rootedness. A basic confirmation of who I know I’ve been for quite some time now: an American.

Citizenship had been elusive for me, not for lack of desire or want of trying. Immigrants can become citizens through employment or marriage. Employment was never a viable option and marriage was denied to me and my husband until 2010, 12 years after we got together. Our union was not recognized by the federal government until 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision finally paved the way for me.

America has its flaws and my path to becoming American has been long, and at times, challenging. But America is in my heart. This is my home, this is my land, and these are my people.

Originally published on HuffPost.

 

 

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I March

img_9663I march
Not because I’ve lost faith.

I march
Because I believe
No matter our gender
No matter our skin color
No matter our faith
No matter where we’re born
No matter who we love
We are all equal
Each deserving a happy
and meaningful life.

I march
Because I believe
We are responsible for one another
Accountable to each other
Not just to ourselves,
families, tribes
Not to our narrow self-interests
Not to our resentments
Not to our anxieties
and fears.

I march
Because I have faith
Together we can
Change our neighborhood,
city, town, and country
Change our world
Lift each other up
Equals in grace
and abundance.

New York City
January 21, 2017

Senate Approves Congressional Gold Medal Bill for Filipino World War II Veterans

Washington, D.C. The U.S. Senate today approved by unanimous consent S. 1555, the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) Act of 2015, a measure that would grant national recognition to the more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers who served under the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

Introduced in June last year by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), with U.S. Senator Dean Heller (D-NV) as lead co-sponsor, the bill gained bipartisan co-sponsorship of 72 U.S. Senators – a super majority that demonstrates the support needed to merit moving the bill in an expedited manner. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) also played key roles in moving S. 1555 this far.

“Our veterans and their families have been waiting for this awesome news,” says Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), chair of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP). “They will be very pleased and proud to know that the U.S. has not forgotten their wartime service to this country. We call on the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and finally make this long-awaited recognition a reality for our soldiers who performed their duty with honor and uncommon valor.”

To date, the House companion bill, HR 2737, which was also introduced in June last year by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2), with U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck (R-NV-3) as lead co-sponsors, currently has 168 co-sponsors. It is expected, however, that today’s Senate’s action will help build momentum to gather more bipartisan support in the House.

“We are extremely grateful to Sen. Hirono and Sen. Heller for their personal commitment and determination to push this bill through,” says Marie Blanco, FilVetREP Vice Chair. “They championed this very important legislation because they appreciate the urgency of getting it passed this year.”

Blanco also thanked the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over CGM legislation, for “giving the green light to pass this bill by unanimous consent. We are appreciative as well of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), U.S, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) for their leadership in promptly facilitating the approval process.”

Informed of this Senate action, 85-year-old Rudy Panaglima, a Filipino World War II veteran of Arlington, Va. welcomed the news with a sense of joy and relief. “My comrades and I have been waiting for more than 70 years, so I am delighted that we will finally be recognized,” he said. “I can only say ‘God bless America’ for doing the right thing.”

Panaglima is among 15,000 surviving veterans residing in the U.S. and the Philippines. Most of them are in their mid 90’s. They served in the USAFFE as Philippine Scouts, members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army and Recognized Guerillas.

The Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) is the highest award bestowed by U.S. Congress to an individual or group who performed a significant achievement that has impact in American history and culture.

Learn more about the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project here.

USCIS to Implement Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program

News release from USCIS, May 9, 2016.

WASHINGTON—Beginning June 8, 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will allow certain Filipino World War II veteran family members who are beneficiaries of approved family-based immigrant visa petitions an opportunity to receive a discretionary grant of parole on a case-by-case basis, so that they may come to the United States as they wait for their immigrant visa to become available.    

This parole policy was announced in the White House report, Modernizing and Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century,issued in July 2015. An estimated 2,000 to 6,000 Filipino-American World War II veterans are living in the United States today. Among other things, this policy will enable many eligible individuals to provide support and care to their aging veteran family members who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

“The Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program honors the thousands of Filipinos who bravely enlisted to fight for the United States during World War II,” USCIS Director León Rodríguez said. “This policy will allow certain Filipino-American family members awaiting immigrant-visa issuance to come to the United States and be with their loved ones. For many, it will also allow them to provide support and care for elderly veterans or their surviving spouses.”

With the exception of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, the number of family-sponsored immigrant visas available by country of origin in any given year is limited by statute. These limits result in long waiting periods before family members may join petitioning U.S. citizens or permanent residents in the United States and become permanent residents themselves. For some Filipino-American families, this wait can exceed 20 years.

Under the policy, certain family members of Filipino World War II veterans may be eligible to receive a discretionary grant of parole to come to the United States before their visa becomes available. In limited cases, certain eligible relatives will be able to seek parole on their own behalf when their Filipino World War II veteran and his or her spouse are both deceased.

Under the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program, USCIS will review each case individually to determine whether authorizing parole is appropriate.  When each individual arrives at a U.S. port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will also review each case to determine whether to parole the individual.  

Legal authority for this parole policy comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to parole into the United States certain individuals, on a case-by-case basis, for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.

Additional information about the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program—including guidance on eligibility, the application process and where to file—is available in the revised Form I-131 instructions and the Federal Register notice published today. We will not accept applications under this policy until June 8, 2016.  USCIS strongly encourages eligible individuals interested in requesting parole under the FWVP Program do so within 5 years from June 8, 2016.

For more information about USCIS and its programs, please visit www.uscis.gov.

National Actions to Commemorate the 74th Anniversary of Bataan Death March

Prisoners In Bataan

Japanese troops guarding Filipino and American prisoners in Bataan. The prisoners were forced to march over 62 miles from Bataan to Tarlac in what became known as the Bataan Death March. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Washington, DC– The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) is commemorating the heroism of more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers of World War ll by renewing its call to Congress to pass the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Award of 2015. April 9 marks the 74th anniversary of the fall of Bataan, one of the critical moments of World War II in the Pacific theater.

Across the country, advocates will be holding community events, including wreath-laying ceremonies, to pay tribute to these soldiers who fought valiantly in Bataan and endured the Bataan “Death March” 74 years ago.

In San Francisco, Calif., the Philippine Consulate General, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society and Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation will hold a Day of Valor Commemoration and open a Special Exhibit on World War II in the Philippines. The Exhibit will run from April 11-29, 2016.

In Washington, DC, FilVetREP will take part in a program of commemoration hosted by the Philippine Embassy on Friday, April 8. In the Philippines, the Day of Valor (“Araw ng Kagitingan”) is recognized as a national holiday.

Other actions nationwide include a #RecognizeBataanValor and #RecognizeFilVetValor social media campaign to secure co-sponsors to the Congressional Gold Medal legislation; letters and phone calls from around the country to lawmakers; and Op-eds on HuffingtonPost.com and other national publications.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), Chairman of FilVetRep, and other advocates will also be available for press interviews. Contact Jon Melegrito, FilVetREP Executive Secretary, at 202-361-0296.

Here is a list of events:

Friday, April 8, 2016, 5:30 PM Wreath-laying Ceremony, World War II

Memorial followed by program/symposium at Romulo Hall, Philippine Embassy, 1600 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC,    20036. Contact Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, Tel.202-467-9410.

Saturday, April 9, 1:00 PM Community Program, Philippine Mini Mart, Troy, Michigan. Sponsored by the US Pinoys      for Good Governance (USPGG). Contact Willie Deschavez, Tel. 586-713-8261.

Saturday, April 9, 9:00 AM Wreath-laying at the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Bridge on the corner of State Street and Wacker Drive, Chicago, Ill., followed by a program at the Philippine Consultate, 122 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60603. Co-sponsored by NaFFAA West Illinois Region. Contact Anna Liza F. Alcantara, Tel. 312-583-0621.

Saturday, April 9, 2:00 PM Commemoration and Remembrance Ceremony, Filipino Veterans Education Center, War      Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, Cal. Contact Rudy Asercion, Tel. 415-564-6262.

Saturday, April 9, 2:00 PM Wreath-laying Ceremony, followed by a program, sponsored by the Philippine Consulate     of New York and the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia, Inc.  Contact: Mae Ermita Manubay,  Philippine Consulate General NY, Tel. 212-764-1330 Ext. 4013.

Monday, April 11, 8:30 AM A Day of Valor Commemoration and Opening of Exhibition on World War II in the Philippines. The Philippine Center, Kalayaan Hall, 447 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA. Contact the Philippine Consulate cultural@philippinessanfrancisco.org, Tel. 415-433-666 x 313; edgar@bataanlegacy.orgwww.bataanlegacy.org

Democratic and Republican Lawmakers Agree on Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino American Vets

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Originally posted on Huff Post Politics, June 15, 2015 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers can hardly agree on anything that nothing ever gets done in Washington. Last Thursday, however, members of Congress from both Houses announced the introduction of a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who responded to President Roosevelt’s call-to-duty and fought under the American flag in World War II. Led by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), other leading cosponsors were on hand to commend the bravery of Filipino veterans, including Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

“These soldiers did not only defend the nation but they also defended and ultimately liberated sovereign territories held by the U.S. government. These loyal and valiant men and women fought, suffered, and in many instances died in the same manner and under the same commander as other members of our United States Armed Forces during World War II,” said Congresswoman Gabbard. Sen. Hirono added, “If there were ever veterans who deserved the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, it is our Filipino veterans and brothers in arms.”

Filipino WWII veterans were on hand, along with Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Taguba, who leads the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, a non-partisan, community-based group raising awareness of the service rendered by Filipino and Filipino-American troops during the Second World War.

“For over 70 years, the Filipino WWII Soldiers have sought recognition for their courageous actions and selfless service in defending the United States and Philippines,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Taguba. “Despite having their benefits rescinded by the US Congress in 1946, they maintained their unwavering loyalty to the U.S. We are eternally grateful for their faithful and dedicated service. They have earned national recognition from the US Congress proven by the thousands of lives lost in combat, and for those wounded for life. We ask Congress to approve the Congressional Gold Medal for the Filipino WWII Soldiers.”

On July 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a military order directing the Philippine Commonwealth Army, Philippine Scouts, and Philippine Constabulary to be under the command of the U.S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE) commander to defend the Philippines and United States. A year later, the fall of Bataan (April 1942) and Corregidor (May 1942) led to the capture of over 72,000 American and Filipino troops. The soldiers of Bataan went through the Bataan Death March, while the soldiers of Corregidor were taken to Manila before being transported to Camp O’Donnell. Remnants of the USAFFE forces and Filipino civilians organized into recognized guerilla units led by U.S. and Philippine Army Officers. In 1945, the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments and 1st Recon Battalion joined the fight.

Over 260,000 Filipino troops fought in the Second World War. An estimated 16,000 to 17,000 soldiers remain in the U.S. and Philippines. However, public awareness about the contributions of Filipino soldiers during WWII is scant or nonexistent. While other minority veterans groups, namely, the Tuskegee Airmen (2006), Navajo Code Talkers (2008), Women Air Force Service Pilots (2009), Japanese American Nisei Soldiers (2010), Montfort Point Marines (2011), and Puerto Rican Soldiers (2014) have been formally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, Filipino American WWII soldiers have not been similarly honored for their selfless sacrifice and dedicated service.

“I heard the passion that they felt for America and the American cause in the war in their aging voices,” said Rep. Heck, who has championed the recognition and compensation of Filipino-American WW II veterans. “And it is only fitting and proper that we acknowledge their great sacrifice in service to the United States with the Congressional Gold Medal.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project.

Looking Up and Missing Out

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A good number of photos I’ve taken in Italy and in particular, Rome, had me looking up, straining my neck or contorting my torso to capture an impression of the ornate, over-the-top, and gilded ceilings and domes of the city’s churches. There are so many of them that it has all become a blur of rich hues and gold. It’s understandable to be awestruck. Rome and the Catholic Church were built to project power, wealth and empire. But all this looking up has made me look down for grounding, for reality.

The Italy tourists like me see or choose to see is historic, monumental, romantic. We come with our guidebooks and lists of places from friends who have preceded us. We come to consume something different from our day-to-day lives, so we flock to the sites and stare at art which we have been told are essential to a grand tour. But we tend not to look around us, to see the reality about us.

The South Asian men providing selfie sticks and appearing with umbrellas as soon as rain falls. The African men demonstrating how a flat piece of wood opens up to form a basket. The Eastern European women serving pasta and pizza in several languages. The Chinese merchants making sure tchotchkes are in abundance. The Filipino nannies tending plump fair-skinned babies and picking up the shit of pedigreed pets.

Over four million immigrants from Romania, Morocco, Albania, China, Ukraine, the Philippines, India and other countries live in Italy. The Instituto Nazionale di Statistica reports that in 2013, 7.4 percent (4,387,721) of the country’s population was foreign born or native born children of immigrants (15 percent of all births). This statistic does not include the clandestini or undocumented immigrants.

And there are the native Italians going about their business, living as we do back home: commuting, eking out a living, caring for families, albeit precariously. The European Parliament Directorate General for Internal Policies reports that in 2012, 29.9 percent of people living in Italy were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In January 2014, the youth unemployment rate was a staggering 42.4 percent.

Italy today has very little resemblance to the Roman Empire. Its people go about quotidian lives amid all the ruins, museums and churches. They’re really no different from us. I suppose that’s why we look up.

Check out erwindeleon on Instagram for pictures looking up.

Demonizing Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson

I want so much to demonize Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, especially after seeing clips of his interview with George Stephanopoulos. How could he calmly say that he’d do it over again and that his conscience is clear, when he had killed an unarmed teenager? How could I not be outraged when he is now given a national platform to tell his version of the truth while Michael Brown’s truth died with him?

It would not be the first time I’d demonize another person and make him the embodiment of injustices suffered. I severed ties with a childhood friend for opposing equal rights for gay families like mine. He had become both the patronizing face of straight privilege and oppressive voice of conservative Christianity.  I quit a job and blamed a former boss for passing me over because I happen to be a brown immigrant. He had come to represent racism, and my promoted colleague, the beneficiary of white privilege.

Darren Wilson needs to be held accountable for his actions. But what good would demonizing him do? Focusing our rage on one man will not change things. Making Wilson the scapegoat only enflames emotions and festers our collective wounds. We are distracted from the root causes – individual and systemic racism, militarization of police forces, residential segregation, educational and wealth disparities, media and information silos – and fail to act in ways that can bring about real change.

There are no clear and easy answers. But we can begin by educating ourselves and understanding how Michael Brown’s death and Darren Wilson’s freedom from indictment have become the norm. We can ask ourselves how we are complicit and figure out ways we can chip away at what can feel overwhelming and appear intractable.  We need to do something, but demonizing others is not it.

Immigrant organizations key to carrying out Obama’s executive action

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Last Thursday, the president laid out his long-anticipated executive action on immigration, which grants reprieve from deportation to an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants, individuals who have lived here for at least five years and have no criminal record. Now, many people will be able to work legally without fearing deportation and separation from their families and communities.

The executive action also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include young immigrants—DREAMers—who have aged out; provide visas for foreign nationals who invest in the US economy and those who pursue science, technology, engineering, and math degrees in US universities; and add security personnel and resources at the border. The executive action, however, does not include farm workers or the undocumented parents of DREAMers. Moreover, none of the beneficiaries will receive public subsidies under the Affordable Care Act or will be eligible for public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Undocumented immigrants who want to request this reprieve will have to submit an application for deferred action, a process that can be demanding and does not guarantee automatic approval. An individual will have to provide documents proving she meets eligibility requirements, complete multiple government forms, pay taxes and fees, pass a criminal background check, submit her biometrics, and then wait to hear whether her application has been approved. The process can be daunting.

A majority of undocumented individuals are low income and will encounter challenges with the requisite paperwork, application forms, and fees. They will have few resources, if any, to secure the services of immigration attorneys. Some will fall prey to notarios, others will hire expensive lawyers they cannot afford, and many will turn to immigrant-serving nonprofits that provide free legal assistance and other social services. These community-based organizations are best suited to help immigrants with the legalization process and, in the long run, with integration into the economic, political, and social mainstream.

An Urban Institute brief on immigrant legal-aid organizations reveals, however, that these nonprofits are few and far between and that capacity is a major issue. Analysis of National Center for Charitable Statistics data indicates that at least 684 nonprofits provide some form of legal aid to immigrants and are dispersed throughout the United States in traditional, emerging, and new immigrant gateways. But the ratio of legal-aid nonprofits to potential undocumented immigrants is alarming.

In the 10 states with the most undocumented immigrants, nonprofits that provide legal services to immigrants would have more people to serve than other nonprofits. For instance, in Texas, the ratio of immigrant legal-aid nonprofits to potential undocumented clients is 1 to 41,250. In contrast, the ratio of other nonprofits to the general population is 1 to 2,916.

Immigrants

As undocumented immigrants start applying for deportation reprieve, legal-aid and other immigrant-serving organizations will bear the brunt of helping these individuals. Aside from assisting in the deferred action application process, these groups will continue providing basic social services, as beneficiaries of the president’s executive action will not have access to free health care and other safety net programs available to US citizens and permanent residents. It is crucial to identify, map, and survey immigrant-serving organizations to determine their capacities and challenges in serving immigrant communities. This information will be invaluable in discovering where the gaps in resources and services are so that they may be filled and that more immigrants can join the mainstream.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog. Reposted on the Huffington Post.

Photo: President Barack Obama announces immigration executive action on Thursday, November 20, 2014 at the White House. (AP Photo/Jim Bourg, Pool) 

Majority of Deported AAPI Are Not Criminals

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Immigrant advocates have been very vocal about their displeasure at President Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration. “Where is the leadership and courage from President Obama?” asked Gregory Cendana, Chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), “Asian Americans are losing hope.”

Indeed, it is personal for many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community as undocumented family members remain at risk for deportation. About 11 percent of the country’s undocumented are AAPI, mainly from China, the Philippines, India, Korea and Vietnam.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data group at Syracuse University which gathers nonpartisan information about U.S. federal immigration enforcement, reports that immigration court judges have ordered 82,878 individuals deported so far this fiscal year. TRAC points out that only 20 percent of these people are being “removed” because of criminal or any other activity that posed a threat to national security or the public safety. This statistic only rubs salt in the collective wound of immigrants.

Nearly six percent of individuals ordered to leave their families and communities are AAPI (4,778). Immigrants from China (1,840), India (793), the Philippines (344), Vietnam (251), Nepal (198), and South Korea (189) make up 75 percent of AAPIs being deported. The entire AAPI community is represented, including  the island country of Niue (2), Bhutan (1), Brunei (1), and East Timor (1).

Until immigration reform passes and the deportation of non-criminal immigrants stops, AAPI advocates will continue their protest.

“If our elected leaders are serious about fixing our broken immigration system, they must back up their words with actions,” said Miriam Yeung, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). “We will  continue to mobilize our base and make our concerns and needs heard from all across the country to Washington, DC.”