Monday, July 31, 2006

Filipinos in Lebanon Need Help

While the United States and other western governments were able to evacuate most of their citizens within a week of Israel's rain of bombs on Lebanon, residents from poorer countries have not been so lucky.

After three weeks of Israeli bombing that has taken the lives of more than 500 people, and rendered more than a million people homeless, only a fraction of the 30,000 to 34,000 Filipinos there have been able to safely flee to Syria and return to the Philippines.

Most of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Lebanon are domestic workers whose employers have become refugees like them. While most are in Beirut or in northern Lebanon, approximately 2,000 OFWs are in southern Lebanon, where the bombing has been especially ferocious.

Although there have been no reported casualties yet, Lebanese Consul to the Philippines Joseph F.K. Assad expressed concern for their safety.

"I worry that there are Filipino casualties, especially in Saida, Tyre, Qana and Sur, which are cities in southern Lebanon," Assad said in an interview with a Manila daily.

This concern increased with the news that two Israeli bombs on a residential building in Qana on July 30 had killed more than 60 people, including 37 children.

Assad said he was aware that the Philippine Embassy in Beirut under Ambassador Al Francis Bichara was doing everything humanly possible to get the Filipinos out of southern Lebanon. "It's impossible to evacuate all. It's very hard," Assad said. "I just hope they got as many Filipinos out as they could but I doubt if they were able to get all," he said.

According to Assad, all roads leading out of the southern part of the country had been destroyed in the bombings, making flight to safety virtually impossible.

"It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. The Israelis would drop leaflets telling the people to get out of their homes because they (Israelis) might bomb the place. But once they are on the road, the bombs would fall," Assad said.

Once the Filipinos reach Beirut, they can proceed to a Filipino sanctuary that has been established in the Convent of the Lady of Miraculous Medal by Fr. Agustin
"Gestie" Advincula, a Filipino priest. About 700 Filipino refugees are crammed daily in the convent.

Dr. Arsenio Martin, a Filipino physician in Port Arthur, Texas, contacted Fr. Advincula to find out what Filipinos in America can do to help him. In an email to the Filipino American community, Dr. Martin wrote: "I called Fr. Agustin Advincula today and conversed for approximately 40 minutes (he had to excuse himself to offer mass) regarding what his congregation is doing to help the Filipinos in Lebanon."

"Today there are almost 700 people in his convent, they are sleeping on their Convent Hall floor and some are sleeping outside in their "gardens or landscape"
grounds. Fr. Gestie really needs help because they have to feed (and other support) our compatriots.

"After the first 200 Filipinos left their convent, another 200 came in so the Convent is constantly supporting around 700 people every day. He said that a fellow priest from Australia sent him $230.00 yesterday and he used that solely for water supply (drinking and for sanitary purposes) so you can imagine the expenses that they are incurring for our stranded kababayans.

"He also echoed a concern on the delay of our kababayans to reach the Philippines. The "bottleneck" is in Damascus, Syria because of the more than 200 Filipinos that left Beirut yesterday (they have to pass through Syria), only a few flew back home because of the availability of airplane seats and the chartered plane by the Philippine government can not cope with this exodus (there are almost 30,000
Filipinos that wants to go back home at this time.) There is a Monastery that can house them temporarily in Syria but this is 100 KM. away from the airport.

"Fr. Gestie Advincula said that any monetary donation can be sent thru Western Union."

Dr. Martin is working with the Filipino Disaster Relief Taskforce (FDRT) of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) that was set up in Houston last year to deal with the Filipinos who were evacuated to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Arlene Machetta, chair of the NaFFAA Southwest Region, is coordinating the NaFFAA relief efforts for the Filipino refugees in Lebanon. She is asking Filipino Americans to generously send donations to Fr Advincula of the Convent of the Lady of Miraculous Medal in Beirut, Lebanon via Western Union.

Donations made out to "NAFFAA" for the Filipino refugees in Lebanon will be accepted at the Southwestern National Bank c/o Tito Refi/ FDRT-NaFFAA, 6901 Corporate Drive, Houston, TX 77036.

Filipino Christians are familiar with the town of Qana (or Cana) as the place where Jesus Christ performed his first public miracle, the changing of water into wine at a wedding feast there.

Donations are badly needed now for another miracle, the turning of despair into hope.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Mysteries of the Middle East

Analyzing world events used to be easy. Not anymore. Nothing makes sense now.

In the past week, for example, US President George W. Bush vetoed his first bill in five years in office, a bill supported by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that would expand the federal restrictions on stem cell research, allowing US scientists the opportunity to find a cure for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. His concern for human life was cited as the reason for his veto, Bush said.

Bush's concern for human life, of course, did not extend to Lebanese human life as he steadfastly refused to ask the Israelis to stop bombing the civilian areas of Lebanon where more than 300 Lebanese have been killed and more than 500,000 people displaced.

Many Lebanese Christians were among those killed by Israelis who were out to kill Hezbollah Muslims. Unfortunately, a bomb cannot distinguish its victims' religions, politics, ages or genders. These victims are "collateral damage".

Question: Which Middle East country's Parliament voted unanimously to demand that Israel stop its bombing of Lebanon? Answer: Iraq.

The Shite-dominated Iraqi Parliament was concerned about the killings of Lebanese Shites. The Lebanese Shites are principally supported by the Iranian Shites who support the destruction of Israel.

Let's see now. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein and to install an Iraqi Shite-dominated government, that is now heavily influenced by the Iranian Shites.

Even if the US succeeds in Iraq, an increasingly unlikely prospect, it still loses. If the US succeeds, an Iraqi government closely allied with the Iranian government will remain in power. If the US loses, a civil war will ravage Iraq back to the Middle Ages causing the US to lose Iraqi oil, as well as Iranian oil, which will exacerbate the energy crisis in the US substantially increasing the cost of gas.

What was the rationale again for invading Iraq after the Weapons of Mass Destruction turned out to be false? Right. Installing Democracy in the Middle East.

As a result of US pressure, democratic elections were held in the Middle East in places like the Palestinian Authority. As a result of credible, honest elections there, the Hamas party won handily, bringing to power a government which the US considers to be a terrorist organization.

With honest credible democratic elections in Lebanon, the Hezbollah Party won in south Lebanon and is part of the ruling coalition government of Lebanon.

With honest elections in Egypt, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood wins a substantial minority of seats in the parliament.

About the only country in the Middle East that has staunchly refused to conduct democratic elections is Saudi Arabia, the strongest US ally in the region.

One Middle East pundit warned, "Fight a Dictatorship and you must kill the regime. Fight a Democracy and you must kill the people." That is a problem for the US and Israel.

So much for Democracy in the Middle East and concern for human life.

The war in Lebanon is exacting a heavy toll on the more than 30,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) who lived and worked there before the Israeli bombing began. Thousands have since escaped to Syria or Cyprus while the rest are making plans to evacuate as well. The loss of 30,000 jobs will only heighten the poverty among the families dependent on the income of the OFWs in Lebanon.

There are more than 1.5 million OFWs in the Middle East. As the war expands throughout the region, more OFWs will lose their jobs as more Muslims will be unemployed, willing to accept jobs now being held by OFWs.

Filipino OFWs are so desperate for jobs, however, that 7,000 have gone to work in Iraq at US-run facilities there. According to the Philippine Department of Labor, at least 3,000 of them are undocumented.

According to Asia Times reporter Cher Jimenez, "Filipinos are taking up work at US-run facilities in Iraq, dodging an official Philippines travel and employment ban on the war-torn country and providing the US military and its affiliated contractors the cheap, English-speaking manpower it is having increasing difficulty recruiting at home."

The US government may not care much for undocumented aliens in the US but they are welcome at US facilities in Iraq. That may be the Republican solution to the nagging problems of illegal immigration and finding volunteers for Iraq.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Joc-Joc: No Laughing Matter

Manila newspapers had a field day last week reporting on the arrest of former Philippine Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn "Joc-Joc" Bolante by US immigration authorities at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on July 7. Manila reporters and columnists went wild with speculation about why he was arrested and why the bond was set so high at $100,000.

The heavy press interest in Bolante is based on his reported friendship with First Gentleman Mike Arroyo and his alleged role in the distribution of P728 million pesos in fertilizer funds during the 2004 presidential elections.

Sen. Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., the chair of the Senate committee probing what the press dubbed the "fertilizer scam," issued an arrest warrant for Bolante after he twice refused to appear before his committee in October of 2005. Before he could be "arrested" by Senate officials, however, Bolante left Manila for Los Angeles on October 25, 2005.

Upon arrival at LAX in October, Bolante was given a six month visa to stay in the US as a tourist. Before it expired, he left the US, reportedly for South Korea. On July 7, he returned back to Los Angeles with the same multiple entry tourist visa that he used in October, a visa which had been issued to him by the US Embassy many years before.

After he showed his visa to US immigration authorities, Bolante was informed that his tourist visa had been canceled by the US Embassy in Manila. As he had no visa to enter the US, Bolante was then taken into the custody of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (USICE) at the San Pedro Detention Center. Bond was then set at $100,000.

Opposition politicians like former Sen. Vicente Sotto III jumped into the speculation derby with this take on the Bolante arrest. "It could be a signal from the US government not to use the US as a hiding place. The US is aware of what is going on in the Philippines. The arrest and detention of Bolante have very deep implications," Sotto said.

In his column, Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ramon Tulfo reported that Bolante's visa was canceled by the US Embassy in Manila at the request of Sen. Magsaysay, "a good friend of America because of his late father's closeness to the US."

Whatever the reason and however it came about, the cancellation of Bolante's visa by the US Embassy represents a new and significant development in US-RP relations. For the first time, the US Embassy has canceled a lawfully issued visa to someone who was not facing criminal charges and who had not violated any US immigration laws. To be sure, the US Embassy has always had this power but it had never used it, not even when Col. Michael Ray Aquino and Col. Cesar Mancao fled the Philippines for the US after charges were filed against them in connection with the murder of Bobby Dacer.

If the US Embassy had exercised this kind of power in 1991 when the Philippine Senate was deliberating the extension of the US military bases' lease in the Philippines, the vote may have been markedly different.

The five Philippine senators who have homes in San Francisco may now have reason to worry that any vote they take contrary to US interests may cause them to possibly have their visas to the US canceled, leaving them vulnerable to facing the same fate as Bolante.

According to Senate President Franklin Drilon, a year ago Sen. Loi Ejercito was questioned for five hours by US immigration authorities at the San Francisco International Airport. An agent of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) disclosed that Sen. Ejercito was detained after DHS received information from the US Embassy in Manila that she had transferred $500,000 to her US account. No charges were filed against her, however, and she was allowed to enter the US.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has considerable property interests in Los Angeles, may also have his visa "Bolante-sized" if and when he next visits the US because he was named as a "co-conspirator" in the US Attorney's indictments of FBI analyst Leandro Aragoncillo and Michael Ray Aquino.

Will this newly-exercised US power have a "chilling effect" on the judge, the government attorneys and the private lawyers involved in the current prosecution of the five US Marines facing charges in Manila for the rape of a Filipina in Subic last November?

These questions have not been raised by Philippine commentators who have focused all their attention on the possible impact of Bolante's return on the impeachment of President Arroyo. If Bolante returns and "he spills the beans on some administration people," Tulfo wrote, "the ensuing scandal that would erupt might be worse than the one created by the Hello Garci tapes."

While a valid news angle, a more significant point may have been be missed altogether. Can any Philippine senator or government official request the US Embassy to cancel a US visa? Was this done upon the simple discretion of one US consul or was it part of a deliberate US policy? Will we see more US visa cancellations in the future? What are the guidelines for the exercise of this power?

And now for a question that can be answered. Why was the bond for Bolante set at $100,000 when the average bond set for overstaying aliens in removal proceedings is $5,000?

The answer requires an understanding of US immigration law. Before passage of the Immigration Act of 1996, an alien apprehended after physically entering the US would be placed in deportation proceedings while one apprehended at the border or at an airport would be placed in exclusion proceedings. In deportation proceedings, the US government has the burden of proving in immigration court "by clear and convincing evidence" that the alien should be deported from the US. In exclusion proceedings, however, the burden of proof is on the alien to prove that he should be allowed to enter the US.

Although the 1996 law replaced the terms "deportation" and "exclusion" with a new term - "removal proceedings," the distinction remained. In deportation proceedings, aliens are generally entitled to "bond" (not "bail"). In exclusion proceedings, however, aliens are not entitled to be released on bond. If one is allowed to bond out, the bond is usually set at a very high rate, like $100,000.

Bolante has no available relief other than to apply for political asylum in order to stay in the US. Although he may not qualify for it, the application for asylum will allow Bolante to stay in the US for years, out of custody - if he can post the bond.

In the meantime, while he remains in custody, Bolante will have to explain to his fellow inmates why his birth name is "Jocelyn" and why his nickname is "Joc-Joc." This is no laughing matter.