Friday, June 26, 2009

A Community Left Out in the Cold

SAN FRANCISCO - Greg Macabenta, Baylan Megino and I answered the call of Rudy Asercion, Executive Director of the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center, to attend the public hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on June 22 to speak out in favor of providing city funding to West Bay, the community non-profit agency that provided services last year to 3500 Filipino families in the South of Market (SOMA) district of San Francisco.

Rudy had sent out an SOS email expressing outrage that the Filipino community had been totally excluded from the $9-M of city funds that would be allocated to various community agencies throughout San Francisco. Every ethnic community in every section of the city would receive their share of city funds, all that is, except for the Filipino community which was completely shut out.

The public hearing would begin at 5 p.m. and Rudy lined up early to get us speaking cards so that we could express our support for the inclusion of the Filipino community in the allocation of community funds. When Greg, Baylan and I arrived at the second floor of City Hall, Rudy was there with our speaking cards informing us that “we’re no. 4”. We were relieved to think that we would be among the first to speak as we saw over 400 people lined up all over City Hall carrying their own speaking cards ready to advocate for funding their various community programs.

After waiting in line outside the chambers of the Board of Supervisors for about an hour, we learned to our frustration that before our “group 4” could speak, groups A to Z and 1 to 3 would speak first. Wow! Greg, publisher of Filipinas magazine, still had the July issue of his magazine to “put to bed” that evening so he couldn’t wait hours to speak. He asked Rudy’s permission to leave which Rudy gave, grateful that Greg had shown up to express his support.

All the ethnic groups from every part of the city were represented among those waiting to make their pitch for funding to the Supervisors. We were not the only Filipinos there as idealistic young Pinoy students from San Francisco State were poised to speak on behalf of the Veterans Equity Center (VEC), and young Pinays from the Asian Women’s Shelter (AWS) were also there to speak of the high incidence of domestic violence in the Filipino community. Representatives of a Filipino workers group providing support to exploited Filipino caregivers were there as well to make their case for funding.

Every one would be allotted one minute to speak and then the bell would ring which would alert the speaker to end his or her speech. While everyone more or less kept to the time requirement, a few would greatly exceed it, prompting a second bell.

It was about 10 p.m. when were told to line up as “group 4” would soon be called. A dozen speakers later and it was finally our turn. Rudy Asercion spoke first and described the vast array of services provided by West Bay to serve the poorest of the poor of SOMA including after-school tutorials, financial literacy and healthy lifestyle programs as well as life skills training. West Bay had collaborated with the Filipino Senior Center, the Filipino Family Resource Center, the South of Market Clinic and the SOMA Employment Center to present a comprehensive package of services for the Filipino community.

Rudy was followed by Baylan who pointed out that Filipinos comprise more than 6% of the San Francisco city population and that we have “the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest dropout rate, the highest mortality rate due to domestic violence, and the highest mortality rate in several types of cancer”. She expressed shock that given the basic needs of our community that no grant funds were recommended for any of the Filipino community organizations.

Then it was my turn. As a former elected official of the city for 18 years, I personally knew many of the Supervisors. In my speech, I described the history of West Bay as the most empowered and empowering Filipino community agency in the SOMA district. By 2005, after 35 years of solid work in the community, West Bay had been duly recognized by four city departments as the agency that best served the SOMA community and was properly awarded $468,501 in city funds for its various programs.

But then in that year 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a West Bay employee was involved in a Medicare scam in the South of Market district. This news article provided the district’s supervisor, Chris Daly, with the excuse to ask the Board of Supervisors to freeze the city funds that had already been allocated to West Bay until, he said, West Bay was cleared of any involvement in the Medicare fraud.

For two months the various city agencies that funded West Bay, together with the FBI, investigated the Medicare scam charge and determined that only one West Bay employee (out of 30 West Bay employees) was involved and she had already resigned. West Bay, they concluded, had nothing to do with the scam. Despite this clearance, however, the Board did not restore the funding back to West Bay, which was then forced to lay off all of its employees and to eliminate the programs that had been effectively serving the community since 1969.

But the Filipino community would not let West Bay die. Slowly but surely, over the years, under the leadership of Rudy Asercion, West Bay came back, once again serving the needs of the most underserved community in the city.

As my time was running out, I prepared to sum up. “Supervisors, I urge….” Then the bell rang and as I was about to finish my sentence, Supervisor John Avalos curtly cut me off saying “Thank you!” as if to say “Next!” Avalos did not do this to any other speaker. I looked at Avalos and remembered that he was Daly’s chief deputy in 2005 when Daly cut off the funds to West Bay. No wonder.

Later, as Rudy, Baylan and I left the chambers, one of the Supervisors, Bevan Dufty, ran after us to apologize for the discourtesy extended to me. He asked for more information about the programs of West Bay and promised to do what he could to restore the funds to West Bay.

A community forum to discuss the exclusion of the Filipino community in the San Francisco city budget will be held on Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 12 noon at the Social Hall of the San Francisco Philippine Consulate at 447 Sutter Street. For more information about West Bay, call (415) 431-6266 or log on to

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Transformative GK Way

BOSTON – The most popular misconception about Gawad Kalinga (GK) is that it is just about building homes for the poor, an image that may have been generated by GK’s previously announced goal to build 700,000 homes in 7000 communities throughout the Philippines in 7 years. But the 800 delegates attending the First GK Global Summit (June 12-14, 2009) at the Cambridge suburb of this city harbor no such illusions because we learned that GK is more ambitious than that.

For three days of plenary sessions at the Cambridge Marriott Hotel and workshops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at Harvard University , we heard speakers flesh out the details of GK’s Vision 2024 platform: a 21-year timeline (2003-2024) aimed at “eradicating homelessness, hunger, and poverty for the millions of impoverished Filipino families all over the Philippines .”

Before skeptics scoff at GK’s ambitious agenda, they should visit any one of the more than 2,000 GK villages (200,000 homes) that have been established all over the Philippines from Aparri to Jolo just in the last six years. These homes were financed by the donations of governmental and non-governmental entities, profit and non-profit corporations and individuals in the Philippines and overseas, including thousands of Filipino-American and Filipino-Canadian donors throughout North America . They were built by legions of volunteers and by the homeless squatters themselves who invested their “sweat equity” into the homes they would own and reside in.

GK’s founder, Tony Meloto, had often preached that “slum conditions breed slum mentalities” and that to get rid of the slum mentalities, you have to get rid of the slums and replace them with decent housing and more. To that end, throughout the country, GK has built colorful, durable and secure homes for the poorest of the poor. Its TATAG program provides pathways, drainage systems, water and toilet facilities, a school, a livelihood center, a multi-purpose hall and a clinic. In some GK villages, basketball courts and libraries have also been constructed.

Each GK village sets up a SIBOL program for its pre-school children and a SIGA program to provide after-school counseling for its students. GK also provides a LUS OG community health care program for its residents with a clinic staffed by volunteer physicians and paramedical practitioners. Its GAWAD KABUHAYAN program conducts livelihood and skills training, start-up capital and materials for microfinance and micro-enterprises, and assists in the marketing of the products created by the GK communities.

Among the Summit speakers who discussed the GK way of governance were two provincial governors (Luis Raymond Villafuerte, Jr. of Camarines Del Sur; and Sally Lee of Sorsogon), five mayors (Sigfrido Tinga of Taguig, Rizal; Sonia Lorenzo of San Isidro, Nueva Ecija; Tito Sarion of Daet, Camarines Norte; Jojo Binay of Makati; and Rico Rentuza of Guinsaugon, Leyte), two senators (Kiko Pangilinan and Miguel Zubiri) and one vice-president, Noli de Castro.

One speaker at a GK Harvard workshop, Alex Lacson, used Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as an example of how an idea can transform a nation. When he became the leader of his country in 1959, Singapore was one of the poorest countries in Asia . Without natural resources, how could Singapore ever hope to become a rich and prosperous country, Lee Kuan Yew asked.

“There is only one way, he told his people. And that is through discipline. Lee Kuan Yew challenged his people that if they learn to become a disciplined people, Singapore will become rich and prosperous. When Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from power as prime minister of Singapore in 1990, almost 31 years since he rose to power, Singapore was already the second richest and most prosperous country in the whole of Asia, second only to Japan . He proved to the whole world that a country, through discipline, even without natural resources, could become rich and prosperous.”

The Philippines has abundant natural resources but presents a more formidable challenge with a population of 88 million (compared to Singapore ’s 5 million) spread out over 7,108 islands, and a history of colonial and neo-colonial subjugation that has imbedded what James Fallows called a “damaged culture” on its people.

“Culture is destiny,” Lee Kuan Yew said. “Your set of beliefs will determine how far you can get in life.” The challenge for GK is to transform the Filipino people’s set of beliefs about themselves, about their innate greatness and goodness as a people and as a nation capable of doing anything and everything to improve their lives.

At the core of Gawad Kalinga’s mission is its founder, Tony Meloto, who provides the personal example to GK supporters throughout the world. His ideas and his vision for the Philippines can be found in his newly-released book called “Builder of Dreams”. In the back of the book is an essay written by Dr. Jose Abueva, founding president of Kalayaan College , who wrote:

“At the heart of Tony’s transforming leadership and example and the inspired efforts of his legions of co-leaders, followers and supporters, is his conscious and determined fusion of his religious faith and his secular idealism. He combines God’s teachings to love and help the poor among us with the secular vision of building a just and humane society in which all enjoy their human rights through good citizenship, good leadership and good governance.”

“He demonstrates that through community self-help, cooperation and solidarity, this unity and integrity of faith and practical reason can lead to the transformation of people, communities and leaders from different spheres of life.”

The GK Global Summit was the perfect antidote to anyone in despair about Filipinos and the Philippines . But even those who did not attend the conference can still rid themselves of despair by joining GK and supporting its 2024 vision to transform the Philippines and the Filipino people. Check out

Friday, June 12, 2009

Divorce, Philippine Style

Of the 195 countries existing in the world, whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, democracy or dictatorship, only 3 have not formally adopted some form of divorce law - Malta, Vatican City and the Philippines.

Included among the vast majority of countries is Italy, the home base of Roman Catholicism, which amended its Civil Code on December 1, 1970 to permit the granting of divorces. Also included is Spain, the country which brought Christianity to the Philippines, which passed a divorce law in 1981. Ireland - the country that has sent more Catholic priests to the Philippines than perhaps any other country - prohibited divorce in its 1937 Constitution but repealed this prohibition in 1995.

All over the world, people and nations have accepted the wisdom and justice of providing for some form of dissolution of a state-sanctioned marriage except understandably for Vatican City, the eternal bastion of total male superiority, which will never need to pass a divorce law for its assorted priests, bishops, cardinals and its Holy Father Pope. And, inexplicably, for the Philippines, which has had two women presidents and where women comprise the majority of its population.

=0 AThere it is, in the first article of its Family Code, the Philippine state declares that marriage is an "inviolable social institution, a special contract of permanent union between a man and a woman."

But critics point out that it is a “permanent union” only for the women as the men have had no problems engaging in “unions” with other women. One Philippine senator openly brags about siring 82 children with dozens of women. One former president openly acknowledges his relationships with various mistresses who remain actively involved in his presidential quest.

While divorce is not legal in the Vatican and in the Philippines, both provide for the nullity of marriage. The canonical law of the Vatican provides for ecclesiastical declarations of nullity. The Philippine Family Code has provisions on Declaration of Absolute Nullity, Annulment and Legal Separation which substantially coincide with the Vatican’s canon law provisions on Nullity while the Family Code provision on Legal Separation is essentially the same as the Catholic Church's provision on Canonical Separation.

Annulment or nullity refers to a process of invalidating what was previously valid. A legal fiction is created whereby the state officially declares a marriage void “ab initio” - from the beginning. If the marriage never existed, then there is no need to dissolve it.

The grounds for nullity in the Philippines are: minority (a party below 18 even with the consent of parents), lack of authority of the solemnizing officer, absence of a marriage license, bigamous/ polygamous marriage, mistaken identity, incestuous marriage and, as of 1988, psychological incapacity.

Psychological incapacity, according to one legal authority, “contemplates downright incapacity or inability to take cognizance of and to assume the basic marital obligations; not a mere refusal, neglect or difficulty, much less, ill will, on the part of the errant spouse.”

This “nullity by psychological incapacity” is the Philippine version of divorce. In the United States, the grounds for nullity are all based on conditions that were in existence at the time of the taking of the marital vows (bigamous marriage, minority, physical incapacity, mental incapacity and fraud). Divorce, on the other hand, is based on conditions that occur after the marriage.

In the Philippines, married parties were always able to file petitions to have their marriages annulled based on the same pre-existing conditions that are the grounds for nullity in the US. A significant change occurred in the Philippines 1988 where parties were now able to file for nullity based on conditions that occurred after marriage where one errant party has displayed conflicting personality, emotional immaturity, irresponsibility, or has engaged in physical abuse, habitual alcoholism, sexual infidelity or perversion, and abandonment. Or even, in at least one case, “habitual lying.” These are normally grounds for divorce in the United States.
In fact, when you really think about it, the basis for every divorce is a psychological incapacity to maintain the marital relationship.

This Philippine divorce otherwise known as “nullity by psychological incapacity” has expanded in its practice and procedure, now even providing for instances where the respondent spouse is out of the country or could not otherwise be served with the legal papers by allowing for summons by publication.

While divorce by any other name is still a divorce, in the Philippines, it is only because it came by another name, “nullity by psychological incapacity”, that it exists. How it came into being is a fascinating story filled with serendipity and irony.

When Cory Aquino became president on February 26, 1986, after People Power ousted Ferdinand Marcos, she abolished the 1973 Constitution that Marcos enacted by dictatorial fiat and replaced it with the 1986 “Freedom Constitution”. She then appointed 50 commissioners to draft a new constitution that would be presented to the people for ratification in February of 1987. Under Cory’s “Freedom Constitution,” there were only two branches of government, the Executive and the Judiciary where the power to make laws was vested in the Executive branch.

Cory had three legal advisers, all women, who were concerned about the inequity in cases where Filipino women were divorced by their foreigner husbands who were able to remarry while their Filipino wives could no t do so about cases where the Filipino husbands were abusive or otherwise sick in the head.

Cory’s advisers knew that a Congress would never pass such a law that would be favorable to women and which the Church would consider “contrary to Philippine culture and tradition.” With Cory’s power to enact laws by her decree under the Freedom Constitution about to end, the advisers hurriedly drafted a Family Code which included provisions for this Philippine divorce by another name. Cory signed it into law on July 6, 1987 before the Philippine Congress was re-established and convened on July 27, 1987.

While officially, the Philippines is the only country aside from Vatican City and Malta to not allow for divorce, unofficially, the Philippines is in step with the rest of the world on this issue. Ironically, this divorce that goes by another name was accomplished by the most devoutly Catholic president the Philippines has ever had.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Historic Gay Pinoy Asylum Case

Because 43-year old gay Pinoy Philip Belarmino was subjected to rapes and repeated sexual harassments as a boy and because the Philippine police are “known to be corrupt” and the Philippine government is “unable to curtail their corruption,” a San Francisco Immigration Judge ruled on May 21, 2009 that Belarmino was entitled to political asylum in the United States.

Belarmino, an English professor in the Philippines who entered the US on a visitor’s visa in 2005, had been placed in deportation proceedings for overstaying his visa. Through his immigration attorney, Ted Laguatan, he subsequently applied for political asylum by claiming that he would be subjected to persecution in the Philippines because of his sexual orientation.

At his individual merits hearing, Belarmino recounted that when he was as young as 9 years old, he had been forced to engage in oral and anal sex by older bullies. He recalled that age 16, a houseboy repeatedly raped him while threatening him with a knife. He said that he did not report the rapes to the police for fear that they would only extort money from him or even use him for “thei r sexual pleasures”.

Immigration Judge Loreto Geisse found Belarmino’s testimony to be credible and determined that he would suffer persecution on the basis of his “membership in a particular social group” which was being a homosexual in the Philippines and granted him asylum.

Just eight years before Belarmino’s case, a gay Mexican (Boer-Sedano), who similarly applied for political asylum, claimed at his San Francisco Immigration Court hearing on November 15, 2001 that he would suffer persecution in Mexico because of his gender. He testified that he was repeatedly raped by a “high ranking police officer” who pointed a gun to his head=2 0and told him that if he killed him, he was certain that would not be charged with murder but congratulated for “cleaning up society.”

On November 20, 2001, the Immigration Judge (IJ) denied Boer-Sedano’s application for asylum ruling that he had failed to establish past persecution “on account of a protected basis” and that he had failed to seek protection from the authorities. The IJ concluded that the sex acts that Boer-Sedano was forced to perform by the police officer were simply “a personal problem” he had with this officer.

The IJ further concluded that Boer-Sedano had not established a well-founded fear of persecution because “he was not subject to systematic persecution which prevented him from living his chosen life style” and because there was no evidence of systematic official persecution of homosexuals in Mexico.

Boer-Sedano appealed the IJ’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which subsequently affirmed the IJ’s ruling without opinion. He then appealed the BIA decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

To qualify for asylum, an alien applicant must show that he was a refugee or one “who is unable or unwilling to return to his native country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The IJ had rejected Boer-Sedano s argument that he was persecuted on account of his membership in the particular social group of male homosexuals in Mexico because she found that this did not constitute a particular social group for asylum purposes.

On August 12, 2005, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the IJ and the BIA erred because “alien homosexuals” constitute a particular social group. “Whether particular acts constitute persecution for asylum purposes is a legal question…We have held that sexual assault, including forced oral sex, may constitute persecution… Therefore, there can be no doubt that the nine sex acts that Boer-Sedano was forced to perform rise to the level of persecution.”

The Ninth Circuit further determined that Boer-Sedano’s failure to seek20help from officials was understandable given the status of the officer who was victimizing him and the fear he had as a gay man living in a country where homosexuality, while not a crime, is socially unacceptable.

The difference in the Immigration Judges’ contrasting decision in the cases of Belarmino and Boer-Sedano also show that applying for political asylum is like playing Russian roulette - land the right judge and you win, land the wrong judge and you lose.

In the summer of 2001, two Egyptian male lovers came to the US for a vacation. After they overstayed their visas, they were placed in removal (deportation) proceedings. Because they did not apply within one year of their arrival, they could not apply for political asylum but they could apply for “withholding of removal”, which is a form of relief similar to asylum.

Married couples can usually appear before the same judge but because the Egyptians were not married to each other, they were assigned to different judges. The one assigned to an IJ who denied more than 90% of the asylum claims before him denied his withholding of removal application and ordered him deported back to Egypt. The other one who was assigned to a more liberal judge was granted his relief and subsequently received a green card.

Both had filed similar claims alleging past harassment, beatings, hospitalization and lack of police response but received opposite results. Even though Boer-Sedano had a stronger argument for asylum in 2001 than Belarmino did in 2009, the IJs who heard their cases differed in their rulings.

Commenting on the historic significance of the Belarmino ruling, Atty. Ted Laguatan stated: “This decision by Judge Geisse gives a strong message to the world that gay people should not be persecuted for being gay. Persecuting gay people is no different from persecuting people simply because they are of a different color or nationality. This decision provides encouragement and hope to gay communities in their struggle to end discrimination and harassment against them.”