Filipino Vets’ Tale Tells Immigration Reformers Never Give Up

Filipino Vets’ Tale Tells Immigration Reformers Never Give Up

Story tools

A A AResize


Photo: From left: WWII veterans Benito Valdez, Greg Garcia, veteran’s son Robert Friedlander, editor Sluggo Rigor, and widow Dolly Castillo meet at the senior center almost every day.

SEATTLE, Wash.--As Congress debates immigration reform, advocates may want to look at what can happen even after the United States government grants citizenship—and even to war heroes who fought on the American side.

Just ask Benito Valdez, 90, who lives in South Seattle in a tiny room under a church hall. He is one of two surviving heroes of the historic Great Raid, a daring military mission that freed 550 American and Canadian prisoners of war from a Japanese concentration camp in the island of Luzon during the war.

Only about 50,000 former soldiers remain—now in their 80s and 90s--of the 550,000, who were conscripted into U.S. military service in World War II under American command. In 1946, they heard President Harry Truman say it was a “moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of Philippine Army veterans.”

9,000 Vets Came to U.S.

Valdez arrived in Seattle some years after President George H. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990—44 years following Truman’s statement. The law offered citizenship to Filipino WWII veterans, who would come to the U.S. about 9,000 journeyed here thinking the offer included long-awaited pensions and other military benefits.

A widower when he came to this country, Valdez remembers his dismay on learning the offer of U.S. citizenship did not include his immediate family. He was told he had to file a petition if he wanted his children, his primary safety net, to join him here. Then age 76, suffered from diabetes.

Immigration rules require petitioners to demonstrate their ability to support the people they petition to join them. The septuagenarian had to find gainful employment, so he worked as a dishwasher for a nutrition program for two years to show he had income.

Although his earnings were not enough, he soon was able to establish links with a supportive community including church members, who volunteered to be co-petitioners for his daughters and grandchildren.
So far, only one daughter has been allowed to come to the U.S. on a temporary humanitarian visa. Valdez is still waiting for his grandchildren. Without this daughter’s family being able to join them, Benito worries about who would care for him as he battles diabetes and a heart condition.

Today, he said, he is considering returning to the Philippines to be nearer to his family in his twilight years. His only worry is medical care and the inevitable expenses.

As for the promised compensation, not until 2009 did it fall to President Obama to sign that year’s Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act, as part the economic stimulus package.

The law provided $265 million—not for pensions but for one-time payments to the surviving Filipino soldiers: grants of $15,000 for veterans who reside in the U.S., and $9,000 for those living in the Philippines. Several thousand of the remaining soldiers and guerrillas were still denied their share and are appealing their claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

They Came—and Organized

Today these soldiers have been reduced to less than 4,000. They live in cities across the U.S. where there are supportive Filipino-American communities.

After arriving in the U.S., they formed their own associations and have affiliated with similar groups based in Hawaii, California, Washington, D.C., Florida, Nevada and Washington State so that they can campaign together for the entitlements they believe have been denied them since the war was won in 1945.

In Seattle, for instance, the Filipino War Veterans of Washington is an organization affiliated with the umbrella organization, the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, based in the nation’s capital. From the original 55 members who arrived in Seattle and Tacoma two decades ago, the Seattle group membership is down to 17, half of them homebound.

The veterans often gather in a room assigned to their group at the International Drop-In Center (IDIC), where I am executive director. Located in the basement of Beacon United Methodist Church in South Seattle, the center serves about 400 seniors each week--most of Seattle’s Filipino immigrant seniors, war veterans, widows and newly arrived families, including other Asian Pacific Island elders.

Among the WWII Filipino veterans is Tomas Villanueva, who recently turned 90. He came to the U.S. in 1991, and was lucky to be accompanied by his wife of 60 years because his war service classified him as a U.S. Army-recruited Philippine Scout. That entitled him to bring his spouse.

But it is a different story for his children who are still in the Philippines. Villanueva had hoped that his daughters would be with them as they aged in their adopted land.

As early as 1994, Villanueva petitioned for their six children and their families to join them here. Almost 20 years later, they are yet to arrive.

Lately, Villanueva has shown signs of dementia and his wife Ester, 88, is thinking of moving him home to the Philippines.

Widows Denied, But Fight 

For Dolly Castillo, 89, a widow and retired physical education teacher who worked in the Seattle public school district, the growing number of widows of WWII veterans only underlines again what she calls “an issue of monumental omission.”

“When President Obama signed into law the equity bill in 2009 that gives a one-time lump-sum [payment] only to living veterans, the widows asked why this was so,” she said. “It is a grave injustice for America to exclude our husbands just because they are no longer around. Is it their fault that they died waiting for so many years?”

Castillo, activities coordinator for IDIC and a co-organizer Filipino-American Widows of Washington. She is one of 45 Filipino widows who meet each month at the center and who have tirelessly lobbied and written to elected officials to ask why their husbands’ pensions cannot be given to them or to the families they have left behind.

“After all, if their names are on the roster and they had served with honor, why shouldn’t their loved ones receive what is due them,” Castillo asked?

In 2006, the Washington State Legislature responded to an appeal filed by the veterans with $25,000 grant to conduct a statewide survey of all Filipino war veterans, who would be eligible beneficiaries should federal legislation on family reunification be passed.

In February 2007, the survey revealed that 47 elderly veterans in the state had petitioned for 555 family members to join them in this country since their arrival here in the1990s. As of end of February 2013, only seven of those veterans were are still around waiting for their families. The rest have died or given up and returned to the old homeland.

Greg Garcia, 89, considered the originator of the initiative to elevate the issue at both the state and national level still waits for his adult three children and 10 grandchildren he had petitioned for in December 1992.

“I pray I will still be around when they finally arrive,” the old warrior shares.

Sluggo Rigor wrote this story through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. A longer version of this article appeared in Filipino-American Bulletinwhich he edits.