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Letter from Washington
By Jon Melegrito
 
Citizenship for Immigrant Soldiers
 

With the U.S. invasion of Iraq getting mixed reviews - largely influenced by the embarrassing failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction, surprising Iraqi resistance to their "liberation," and disturbing reports of high civilian casualties caused by U.S. cluster bombs - Washington is nevertheless gearing up for a new battle on the home front.
     But this one's tougher. Already, indications are that implementing Bush's domestic agenda won't be as easy as invading another sovereign country. The Senate has already cut his $700 billion tax cut into half. And there's growing unease not only about the cost of this war but about a huge budget deficit which the administration would most assuredly use as an excuse to cut social services and other obligations.
     Among the victims? Veterans. After being hailed in the halls of Congress as heroes, their benefits get slashed. Go figure. Of the 435 representatives and 100 senators - most of whom supported the decision to go to war, only one has a close relative serving in the armed forces.
     But this is exactly the reception that our troops will get when they come back. No surprise there. It happened after World War II and Vietnam. After sending them to battle, the U.S. government pretty much ignores them after the fighting is done and over with. Many end up jobless, or homeless. The wounded and the maimed would have to fend for themselves with whatever little benefits they get.
     Among these returning soldiers are approximately 40 Filipino Americans and medical personnel who risked their lives in this illegal and immoral war. Two of them - Marine Sgt. Joseph Menusa, and US Army Ranger Staff Sgt. Nino D. Livaudais - were killed in action. A third, Spc. Joseph Hudson, was captured by Iraqi forces but later released.
     As a consolation, the U.S. granted citizenship to Menusa - who was an immigrant - posthumously. Legislation is underway to do the same for all immigrants who served in this war, but only if they died. This prompted angry reactions from families of surviving soldiers. "Why wait until they're dead?" asked one immigrant mother at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles. Unofficial responses from government sources acknowledge that extending citizenship to immigrant servicemen and women while they're still alive could be problematic. One reason cited is the possibility of abuse. Which is, of course, ridiculous. This prompted Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles Diocese to write President Bush urging him to grant citizenship to immigrant soldiers as soon as they are accepted into the military. "There's something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship," Cardinal Mahony wrote.
     Newspaper editorials also support this move. The San Francisco Chronicle recently pointed out that "to gain citizenship through death is a cruel fate. To truly honor the dead, President Bush should extend citizenship to all immigrants serving in the military who desire it. He must revise overly broad security initiatives that cast a cloud of suspicion on all immigrants, legal or not. He must reopen negotiations with Mexico on amnesty for undocumented immigrants who have made positive contributions to the nation."
     This change in policy would, of course, be welcomed in the Filipino community. According to official US Department of Defense figures, Filipinos comprise 20.6% of all noncitizens in the US Armed Forces, more than the combined total of Mexicans (12.7%) and other Latin Americans (5.1%).

UPDATE ON VETERANS
With the nation's attention now focused on domestic issues, the Filipino American community is gearing up to rabble-rouse once again about the plight of Filipino World War II veterans when Congress resumes on April 29. The participation of Filipino American servicemen in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is hoped, will cast the veterans story in a more favorable light.
     The American Coalition for Filipino Veterans is renewing its push for the passage of a health bill, HR 664 and S.68. The immediate goal: hold hearings in the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees.
     The National Network for Veterans Equity (NNVE), with chapters in San Francisco, New Jersey and Chicago, is preparing to launch another grassroots campaign. As it did in the last two years, NNVE is working hard to put pressure on Congress to pass HR 677 - the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill of 2003. Here in Chicago, NNVE's affiliate chapter is intensifying its education and organizing work. For instance, it is collaborating with the Pintig Cultural Group to present "Alien Citizen" during Asian Heritage Month. Headed by IVEC President Arcadio Calabas and FilCRA coordinator Jerry Clarito, this effort to highlight the immigrants and veterans issue deserves community support. The play itself, described as "a riveting piece of theatre," calls attention to the injustice created by the U.S. Rescission Act of 1946, which denied rights and benefits to many Filipino veterans.
     The Los Angeles-based FilAmVets Foundation, Inc., for its part, plans to take advantage of President Arroyo's state visit on May 19 by organizing a caravan to Washington DC. It plans to appeal to President Bush to issue an executive order forming a Filipino World War II Veterans Commission under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the view of its members, this measure would help facilitate "a final resolution for entitlement of full U.S. veterans benefits for those Filipino veterans who served under the U.S. Army Forces and the American Flag regardless of their present residence and citizenship."
     Organizers of these various initiatives all agree that their strategic mission is to restore the honor and dignity of Filipino veterans. Nothing short of HR 677's passage will bring closure to their long struggle for equity and justice.
     The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) and the Philippine Embassy are working closely with these groups to achieve this goal.

OPERATION LIBERTY SHIELD The new Department of Homeland Security has recently developed a list of thirty-three countries and two territories, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Thailand, whose nationals will be placed under mandatory detention by DHS if they seek asylum in the United States. Civil rights advocates are alarmed by this development.

Ostensibly, this list is part of the broader war on terrorism. This targeting of asylum seekers from so-called "al-Qaeda" active nations prompted this response from the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium:
     "The targeting of individuals that have been persecuted, jailed, and tortured, only to be placed under mandatory detention without benefit of judicial discretion when they are seeking refuge and protection in America, is extremely troubling," said Karen K. Narasaki, President and Executive Director of NAPALC. "In many instances those individuals were the people who took a stand against the oppressive governments and regimes that have attacked our American values."


POSTCRIPT. With Washington still giddy about its "victory" in Iraq, expect more war talk in the air, especially from Pentagon. The anti-war movement - which has grown surprisingly well within a few months before the first bombs were dropped - is also expected to renew its challenge to administration policy of pre-emptive strikes. The movement has successfully mobilized large numbers of protesters, notably from church groups and labor unions. Already, this diverse coalition of peace and justice activists have vowed to pour their energies in the 2004 elections.

E-mail your comments to jonmele@aol.com

FIFTH STORY FOR FRONTPAGE
3RD STORY FOR COMMUNITY PAGE

Driver's license ban vs. foreigners temporarily lifted

FOR the next three consecutive Mondays of May 2003, foreign nationals who were previously unable to obtain an Illinois driver's license due to lack of social security card, can get an Illinois drivers license, the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State Jessie White announced recently.
     Dates currently available are May 5, 12 and 19, 2003. Applications were also made available on April 14, 21, 28.
Qualifying applicants for the Pilot Program must be able to provide evidence of residency in Illinois as well as his/her lawful nonimmigrant status. They must pass the vision screening, the written exam, (oral examinations may be given) and the road exam.
Applicants are also required to provide proof of insurance on the vehicle to be used for the drive exam and the vehicle used must pass safety inspection.
Applicants must schedule an appointment with the Secretary of States office in order to participate in the program.
If applicant is a student, the applicant must provide a letter from the school substantiating residence, and current enrollment status.
To schedule an appointment in the Chicago Metro Area with the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State, please call (312) 814-1132.