Monday, May 21, 2007

The Grand Faustian Bargain

It was hailed by its negotiators as the "Grand Bargain" but it’s Faustian at best.

In exchange for providing some temporary relief to the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the US, the White House and members of the US Senate agreed to an immigration reform bill that would permanently eliminate family preference visas - and replace them with a “merit-based” point system that may bar most temporary workers from adjusting their status to permanent residence.

The avowed goal was to fix the broken immigration system by “balancing the needs of families, employers, our economy, and our national security to make legality the norm in our country.” Instead they produced what the American Immigration Lawyers Association calls “a cobbling of compromises" which may be cobbled by more compromises in the Senate and later in the House.

Family Preferences Eliminated

Under the proposed bill, US citizens would no longer be allowed to petition their adult unmarried children (1st preference). They would also be barred from petitioning their married children (3rd) and their siblings (4th), and, for the first time, their petition for their parents would be subject to numerical limitations (40,000 a year).

Immigrants would no longer be able to petition their adult unmarried children (2nd preference) and petitioning their spouses and minor children would be subject to a worldwide total quota of 87,000 a year.

This bill will directly impact the Filipino American community at both ends of the bargain. Under current immigration law, each country is allotted a maximum of 20,000 immigrant visas a year, divided equally among five family preference visas. For the Philippines, the 3rd preference (married children of US citizens) has a current priority date of January 1, 1985.

As there are 4,000 visas for this category annually, the 22-year wait means that there are 88,000 (22 X 4,000) already in line, waiting for their priority dates to be current for their visas to be issued. As the spouse and minor children of the petitioned married son/daughter are derivative beneficiaries of this petition, the 88,000 would actually mean an average of 200,000.

Immigrants in Waiting

The 4th preference (siblings of US citizens) also has a priority date of January 1, 1985. For similar reasons, there are also 200,000 Filipinos in this category with approved visas awaiting their priority dates. Together with another 60,000 on the waiting list in the 1st preference (unmarried adult children of US citizens), another 20,000 in the 2nd preference A (spouses and minor children of immigrants), and 44,000 in the 2nd preference B (adult unmarried children of immigrants), the total of Filipino immigrants-in-waiting in the Philippines is over 500,000.

The proposed bill would not eliminate those already in line, except for those visa petitions filed after May 1, 2005, an arbitrary cut-off date. The good news for those who filed their petitions before that date is that their relatives would no longer have to wait for as long as 22 years as the bill will allot 440,000 visas a year to clear the backlog of the family-based categories, a process estimated to take eight years to complete.

At the other end of the bargain, it is estimated that there are anywhere from 500,000 to a million Filipinos in the US who are out of status (TNTs) - living in the shadows (tago nang tago) in marginalized existence, many on subsistence wages and always dreading (takot na takot) the day when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents come to incarcerate and deport them.

“Z” Non-immigrants Visas

Title VI of this bill will create a new four-year renewable “Z” non-immigrant visa for those living in the US illegally who entered the country before January 1, 2007. To obtain the probationary Z visa, these aliens would be required to remain employed, maintain a clean criminal record, submit biometric fingerprints, be cleared by one-day background checks, and pay an initial fee of $1000. Anyone who has committed a crime would be ineligible for this visa.

For the Z nonimmigrant to obtain an immigrant visa and a path to citizenship, he or she will have to satisfy certain merit requirements, file the application for adjustment of status in the alien country of origin and pay a penalty fee of $4,000. That can be done only after the backlog of family-based visas has been completed for his/her home country, however.

For Z visa holders from the Philippines, where it will take at least eight years to clear the family backlog, the earliest a Z applicant can apply a for a visa is 8 years. The Z applicant must have an employer, a high merit point, who will be willing to wait the year or two that the applicant waits in the Philippines for his/her visa to be processed. Some employers may not be able to wait that long to hold a vacant position.

Triggers before “Z” Visas

After obtaining an immigrant visa, the Z immigrant will not be able to petition his or her parents, siblings or adult children even after obtaining US citizenship five years after acquiring the immigrant visa. More, before the Z visas can be issued, certain “triggers” have to occur, including hiring an additional 18,000 border patrol agents, building 370 miles of fencing and erecting 70 ground-based radar and camera towers along the southern U.S. border - a process that could take years. The bill will also stiffen laws and penalties relating to employers who hire illegal aliens, requiring all of them to electronically verify employees, including new hires and current employees.

The proposed bill faces stiff opposition from House Republicans opposed to any bill that would provide “amnesty” to illegal aliens. To pass the House, certain concessions may be made that could eviscerate the bill. House Republicans need to be convinced, like Pres. George W. Bush that it would be impossible to deport 12 million illegals from the US, and that keeping them in the shadows is not in the interests of US national security.

For the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who pray day and night for a law that would allow them the opportunity to work legally, obtain a driver’s license and potentially to obtain a green card, this bill is the best opportunity in years to reach that goal. If it doesn’t pass this year, it will take years before a similar opportunity comes along again, if ever.

CALL 1-800-417-7666

Because the Filipino community in the US will be greatly impacted by this bill, we have to make our voices heard on this issue. Please call your senators today and tell them how important family-based immigration is to you. When you dial 1-800-417-7666, you will be automatically connected to the senators representing the phone number/area code you are using. Please let them know that you and your family benefited from family reunification and that you want them to embrace family values and oppose the elimination of the family-based preferences.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Philippine Election Overview

Philippine elections are a special breed unlike any in the world.

Where else can you find the second most powerful person in the country describe it as “destructive, very dirty, even poisonous,” as House Speaker Jose de Venecia described his tight race for reelection?

Where else can you find this headline: “Despite 114 dead, polls ‘generally peaceful’ – PNP”? Only 59 candidates and 55 supporters were killed this time, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer which attributed the quote to officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP), which compared this “rosy picture” to the 2004 elections where 189 people were killed.

There were political parties of all stripes running national and local candidates. In the Senate race were candidates with the same surnames competing against each other: Alan Peter Cayetano of the Genuine Opposition (GO) and Joselito Cayetano of the Kilusan Bagong Lipunan (KBL); Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino (GO) and Theodore "Kuya Ted" Aquino.

“Kuya Ted," a dual citizen from Fremont, California, filed his certificate of candidacy and ran on a platform of good governance representing the global Filipino community. But his cousin “Noynoy” called him a “nuisance candidate” and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) ruled in Nonoy’s favor, disqualifying “Kuya Ted” on the grounds that he was not properly a Philippine citizen as he had reacquired his citizenship before the COMELEC had set the regulations for acquiring dual citizenship.

But when COMELEC Chair Benjamin Abalos visited San Francisco last month, he learned from consular officers that “Kuya Ted” had been properly sworn in as a Philippine citizen, based on Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) interim regulations that were legally in force. Ooops. Abalos then ruled that “Kuya Ted” could run but, alas, it was too late to change the ballots.

And where else can you find so many candidates with cutesy names? Aside from “Noynoy,” Senate candidates included “Buboy” (actor Cesar Montano), “Koko” (Aquilino Pimentel III), “Kiko” (Francis “Mr. Sharon Cuneta” Pangilinan), “Chiz” (Francis Escudero) and “Goma” (actor Richard Gomez), aside from “Gringo” (Gregorio Honasan) and “Ping” (Panfilo Lacson).

The Senate is also a dynastic family haven. Alan Peter seeks to join his sister Pia. Aquilino Pimentel III wants to be with his father Aquilino II. John Henry (Sonny) Osmena wants to rejoin his first cousin, Serge. And Noynoy wants to follow his father, Ninoy, in the Senate where he may be joined by his Aunt Tessie (if she makes it.) The Senate family already has Jinggoy Estrada and his mother, Dr. Loi, son and wife of Erap.

There are several dozen “party list” groups running for House seats allocated to groups which attract at least 2% of the electorate. The leading party-list group in the Left is the Bayan Muna under the former Communist Party of the Philippines Secretary-General, Satur Ocampo, who was briefly incarcerated for an old subversion charge, which he claims was politically motivated. The Right is represented by the True Marcos Party of the Philippines headed by retired Maj. General Jovito Palparan, charged with various human rights abuses in UN reports.

While there are numerous political parties and party list groups vying for the 25 million votes that were cast in these May elections, there are essentially only two parties with competing platforms – the “pro-impeachment” party and the “anti-impeachment” party. The pro-impeachment alliance is running under the banner of the “Genuine Opposition” (GO) led by impeached former Pres. Joseph “Erap” Estrada. The anti-impeachment coalition is called Team Unity (TU), supported by Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), the beneficiary of Erap’s impeachment.

GO is derisively referred to as GAGO (stupid), while TU is labeled TUTA (lapdog). In the Estrada-led coalition are Manny Villar, who as House Speaker in 2000 maneuvered the impeachment of Estrada before running for the senate. Also in his slate is Sonia Roco, the widow of the late Sen. Raul Roco who led the Senate prosecution of Estrada. In the GMA-supported TU are former Erap senators Vicente “Tito” Sotto and Tessie Aquino-Oreta, who were the closest supporters of Fernando Poe, Jr., GMA’s main rival in the 2004 Presidential elections.

The main question to be decided by these elections whether there will be enough members in the House to impeach GMA and be enough members in the Senate to convict her. It will take a minimum of one-third (92) of the 275 members of Congress (220 elected by district and 55 party list) to impeach President Arroyo and two-thirds of the 24 senators (16) to convict her in order to remove her as president and install her vice-president, Noli De Castro, in her place.

Of all the parties running for office in this year’s elections, one political party stands out, the Kapatiran Party which “focuses more on moral principles than what is politically expedient, more on the needs of the poor and vulnerable than the interests of the rich and the powerful, more on the pursuit of the common good than the demands of special interests, more on the culture of life and peace that the culture of death and violence.”

Aside from Jess Paredes and Adrian Sison, the Kapatiran Party also has Dr. Martin Bautista, who was a physician in Oklahoma (1996-2006) before returning to the Philippines, with his wife and four US-born children, to run for public office.

This year will mark the first time that dual citizens (those holding RP and US passports) have been allowed to vote in Philippine elections. Although it was included the Citizenship Retention and Reacquisition Act of 2003, the COMELEC ruled in 2004 that dual citizens who did not establish residence in the Philippines could not vote in Philippine elections.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), under National Chair Loida Nicolas-Lewis, challenged the COMELEC ruling in the Philippine Supreme Court. On August 4, 2006, the Supreme Court unanimously held in her favor, holding that “there is no provision in the dual citizenship law—RA 9225—requiring ‘duals’ to actually establish residence and physically stay in the Philippines first before they can exercise the right to vote.” With this decision, the Philippines joined 98 other countries which allow “duals” to vote in their elections.

Unfortunately, the turnout of overseas voters has been less than stellar, leading some Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials to consider scrapping overseas voting altogether if the turnout does not noticeably improve in the 2010 elections.
Of course, the DFA doesn’t have this authority as the Overseas Voting Act was passed by the Philippine Congress and signed by the President. Nonetheless, more could be done, especially in Saudi Arabia where only 127,945 Filipinos registered to vote in a total of one million potential voters. The percentage is much lower in the US.

Finally, it takes only a few hours to know the results of elections in most countries. In the Philippines, it will take weeks, although we already know who lost - no one. No one candidate ever loses there, they either win or they were cheated of their victory.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Nicholson Must Go

Chanting “Nicholson must go!” dozens of Filipino WW II veterans and supporters marched in front of the US Veterans Administration office at Fort Miley in this city, demanding that US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson resign from his post immediately.

“Nicholson is now the biggest obstacle to passage of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill,” said Eric Lachica, Executive Director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV).
In a nationwide teleconference held on May 6, members of the ACFV, representing 4,000 Filipino veterans and supporters throughout the US, voted unanimously to call for Nicholson’s resignation.

“Enough is enough, Nicholson has to go,” said Amador Montero, 88, commander of the U.S. Filipino War Veterans based in Seattle, Washington. Montero was echoed by Jose Nuega, 81, president of the Association of Filipino American Veterans and Families, Inc. in Sacramento, California.

“Nicholson does not deserve to be VA secretary for what he has done,” said Artemio Caleda, 83, president of the Hawaii U.S. Filipino War Veterans Association. “We will convey our position to Senator Daniel Akaka.” Caleda said that his group met with Senator Akaka’s district director in Honolulu to discuss their call for Nicholson’s resignation. Akaka is the current chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The Filipino veterans’ denunciation of Secretary Nicholson was caused by his opposition to the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill. At the April 11 Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the Senate Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (S. 57) sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Nicholson directed his Deputy Undersecretary for Benefits, Ronald R. Aument, to testify that the VA was opposed to the bill because the benefit costs would be about "$510 million in the first year and more than $4 billion over ten years."

At that Senate hearing, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Wyoming) acknowledged the significant contributions of Filipino veterans, stating that “victory in the Pacific would not have been assured without their help.” He said the question is: “62 years after World War II, has the United States government met its obligation to Filipino veterans who fought under U.S. command during the war?”

”When distinguished veterans of this Senate and of that war - such as Senators Inouye and Akaka - put their name to legislation which suggests we have not met our obligation,” Craig said, “that is an alert to all of us here that something is amiss. That, in fact, we can and should do better for Filipino veterans.”

But “the price tag of S. 57 is extremely large, almost $1 billion over ten years by some estimates,” he said. “The Congress's budget rules require us to find offsets for any new spending. During a time of war and fiscal restraint, how will the costs of S. 57 be met?”

Craig referred to the estimate provided by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who has asked for an appropriation of $900-M over ten (10) years or $90-M a year to finance the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (HR 760).

The FilVets bill can be funded at an even lower amount, however. American veterans currently receive $911 a month from the US Veterans Administration (VA) for their non-service connected disability pension. Those American veterans receiving this full pension would not otherwise be entitled to receive $623 a month in federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and $200 a month in veterans’ subsidy from the state of California.

Most Filipino WW II vets in California do not receive the full $623 a month in SSI because the federal government deducts $100 (5,000 pesos) which Filipino veterans receive from the Philippine Veterans Administration Office (PVAO). The $523 a month they receive from SSI, together with the California state supplemental income of $200 a month, provide Filipino veterans in California with $723 a month.

To equal the $911 a month that they would have otherwise received as American veterans but for the Rescission Act of 1946 (which rescinded US military benefits promised to Filipino soldiers under US command), all they would need from the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill would be an average of $200 more a month.

As approximately 4,000 of the 5,000 surviving Filipino WW II veterans live in California, this would amount to $9.6-M a year for them. The 1,000 veterans living outside California would be entitled to $400 a month equal their American veteran counterparts. Their total would be $4.8-M.

If the bill were to pass this year, it would go into effect next year. By then, there may only about 10,000 Filipino veterans in the Philippines who would be eligible to receive this monthly benefit as many of the “recognized” veterans in the Philippines do not have their names officially listed at the US Army office in St. Louis, Missouri. At $200-M a month for the estimated 10,000 vets in the Philippines, the total would be $24-M. Adding the 4,000 vets in California ($9.6-M), 1,000 outside California ($4.8-M) and 10,000 in the Philippines ($24-M), the total package would be $38.4 million a year.

The difference in the estimates of Nicholson’s DVA and the ACFV is critical in light of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal years 2008 which the US House passed on March 29, 2007. Under Section 209 (“Reserve Fund for Equitable Benefits for Filipino Veterans of World War II”), the House decreed that any increase in benefits for Filipino veterans would only be appropriated if it does not “increase the deficit.”

This means that congressional supporters of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill will have to find a source for the funds to be allocated for the Filipino veterans that would not “increase the deficit,” a formidable task considering that veteran groups from other eras are also heavily competing for funds from the same VA budget.

The task is even more formidable in light of recent disclosures that the Department of Veterans Affairs suffered a $1-billion shortfall because it “miscalculated” the health care costs of veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. This shortfall has exacerbated the health care problems of American veterans, highlighted by the recent scandal of neglect at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Secretary Nicholson’s response to the embarrassing disclosures of scandals in his watch was to reward the VA senior officials responsible for them with “hefty bonuses.”

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), Nicholson authorized the payment of $3.8 M in bonuses at the end of 2006, which AP learned was “the most lucrative in the federal government.”

“Among those receiving payments were a deputy assistant
secretary and several regional directors who crafted the VA's flawed budget for 2005 based on misleading accounting. They received performance payments up to $33,000 each, a figure equal to about 20 percent of their annual salaries,” the AP report stated.

"Awards should be determined according to performance," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, "I am concerned by this generous pat on the back for those who failed to ensure that their budget requests accurately reflected VA's needs."

Nicholson was appointed by US President George W. Bush in January of 2005 to replace VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi, who had been an ardent supporter of the Filipino WW II veterans and was the keynote speaker at the First Global Filipino Networking Convention in San Francisco in August of 2002.

Before his appointment, Nicholson served as national chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Before that, he was a real estate attorney and developer in Denver, Colorado, who was active in the Republican Party politics. His cabinet appointment was widely viewed as his reward for being a “loyal Bushie.”

Filipino WW II veterans are urging their supporters throughout the US to write or email VA Secretary Jim Nicholson to urge him to resign. Inquiries or letters urging Nicholson’s resignation can be sent to Perhaps President Bush can reappoint Principi to his old post.

Despite Nicholson’s staunch opposition, however, the Filipino veterans are still hopeful that they can pass the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill in the US Congress this year. “With the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner, together with their Senate counterparts, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Daniel Akaka and the emerging consensus of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress, we will get it passed this year,” said ACFV Director Lachica.

Most of the surviving veterans are already in their 80s, dying at an exponential rate. Any further delay will make passage a sham.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Welcome to SOMA

May is our month, according to the US Congress which passed a law in 1992 proclaiming May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month to honor the achievements of Asian/Pacific Americans.

Congress chose May not because Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal visited San Francisco in May of 1888 but because Japanese immigrants first arrived in the U.S. on May 7, 143, and because the transcontinental railroad, built largely with Chinese labor, was completed on May 10, 1869.

When the US Congress designates a commemorative month, government agencies and schools are required to sponsor programs or events to honor the ethnic group or groups during that month. In US cities with large ethnic Asian populations, various celebrations are held to mark the occasion. In San Francisco, the major event will be the 3rd Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration on May 19 in the SOMA (South of Market) District.

Sponsored by the AsianWeek Foundation, the Celebration rotates its location annually to showcase the diverse Asian enclaves of San Francisco. In its first year, the event was held in Japantown (Nihonmachi). Last year, it was held in the Sunset District which has become San Francisco’s new Chinatown. This year it will be held in the SOMA with its large Filipino community and heritage.

At the April 17 kick-off event for the street fair, I welcomed 200 Asian/Pacific American community leaders of San Francisco and informed them that "from the 1920s up to the present, and especially during the 50s and 60s, SoMa has been the entry point of Filipinos in San Francisco. It is home to many of our cultural centers, restaurants, seniors/veterans facilities, schools and churches."

Before SOMA became a Filipino enclave, it was home to successive generations of European, Latin American and Asian ethnic groups who settled there because zoning regulations had set industrial activity for the area. This led to the construction of low-cost housing for factory and warehouse workers to be close to their places of employment, as well as for merchant marines, sailors, and others associated with San Francisco’s thriving waterfront activity.

Among the early Filipino residents of SOMA was Theodore Manalo, a Filipino cook who lived near 10th and Howard. In the 1920s, he married an English immigrant, Gertrude Taylor, who was the widow of a fellow Filipino cook who died of pneumonia. They had three kids, one of whom, Victoria, would later win fame and glory and two gold medals in platform diving at the 1948 London Olympics.

In October of 2006, San Francisco opened its newest city park in the SOMA district and named it Victoria Manalo Draves Park. It is situated in what was formerly the site of the Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, which was named after the school principal when Victoria Manalo was a student there. The school, which relocated to a new site adjacent to the park, has the highest percentage of Filipino students in the San Francisco Unified School District and has a Fil-Am principal, Jeff Burgos.

A little known factoid: the old Bessie Carmichael School was built on what was once Columbia Square, a park which featured war booty artifacts (old cannons) from the Filipino American War of 1899.

In the 1920s, Filipinos (US “nationals”) were not allowed to buy and own property in California (the law changed only in 1948). Because Masonic lodges could buy and own property, Filipinos formed three major Masonic lodges – Gran Oriente Filipino (GOF), Caballeros de Dimasalang (CDA) and Legionarios del Trabajadores (LDT). In 1921, about 40 Gran Oriente Filipino seamen purchased a hotel they renamed the Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel in the South Park area of SOMA to use as a meeting place and boarding house for their members.
The building still stands as housing for aging Gran Oriente members. In the 1970s, the Caballeros de Dimasalang joint ventured with a local affordable housing group (TODCO) to obtain funds from the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build the Dimasalang House, a 149 apartment unit housing for seniors in the SOMA area.

The group renamed the four streets surrounding the building after Filipino heroes – Dr. Jose Rizal, Tandang Sora, Bonifacio
and Lapulapu. The building, now called the San Lorenzo Ruiz Center (named after the first Filipino saint), also houses San Francisco’s tallest mural depicting the history of Filipinos in the Philippines and in the US.

Neighborhood historian MC Canlas notes that “of all the poblaciones outside the Philippines, South of Market (SOMA) in San Francisco is perhaps the closest in layout and character to the plaza complex in the towns and cities of the
Philippines.” Canlas points to the presence in SOMA of the venerable 175-year old St. Patrick’s Church where “all the pastoral staff and almost 90% of the parishioners are Filipino,” where some masses are held in Tagalog and where the church's pastor emeritus is Monsignor Fred Bitanga.

Across from St. Patrick’s Church is the Yerba Buena Gardens where the annual Pistahan (Fiesta) is celebrated in August. A few blocks from the Church is the Filipino Education Center built in the 1970s for Filipino newcomer students like then 5-year old Marivic Bamba who would - 25 years later - be appointed Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

Most of the service providers for the Filipino community are located west of St. Patrick’s Church, including the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center (180-7th Street), the SoMa Teen Center (175–7th Street), Canon Kip Senior Center (705 Natoma), Bahay-Bayanan and the FilAm Development Foundation (965 Mission), the SoMa Child Care Center (366 Clementina), Galing-Bata (824 Harrison), the Yerba Buena Child Development Center (790 Folsom) and the SoMa Recreation Center (270-6th Street).

The Bayanihan House, an affordable housing complex that’s home to more than 100 Filipino seniors, is located at 6th and Mission along with the Bayanihan Community and Commercial Center. The collaborative running Bayanihan and two other Filipino centers is headed by Bernadette Borja-Sy, whose late father, Dr. Mario Borja, was the owner of the hotel before it was sold to Todco. A block down, between 4th and 5th Streets in the Bloomingdale’s complex is the Filipino Cultural Center, headed by Marivic Bamba, which received a grant of $388,441 from the US Congress, sponsored by the local congresswoman, now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

According to the 2000 Census, there were about 13,500 people living within SoMa boundaries. In 1990, there were only 8,000 and in 1980, just 5,400 people in the area. About 35% of the current residents are Filipino.

Let’s welcome our Asian/Pacific American brothers and sisters to our SOMA community at 7th and Howard on May 19.