WASHINGTON, D.C.–Despite infighting and partisan bickering among the nation’s elected leaders about how to avert government shutdowns or deal with climate change, some of them at least took the time last week to focus on something less controversial.
Like recognizing Filipino American History Month (FAHM).
October is a month celebrated by the nearly four million Filipinos and Filipino Americans, many of whom call America home, and that figure certainly matters come election time.
Introduced October 8 by U.S. Senator Maize Hirono (Dem.-Hawaii) and U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (Dem.-Calif.), the FAHM resolution bills itself as “bipartisan” and “bicameral,” which means it has the broad support of Democrats and Republicans. It’s a rarity in this very politically polarized town.
U.S. Rep.Mike Honda (Dem.-Calif.), who introduced the FAHM Resolution in the House of Representatives, speaks at the Oct. 1 press conference calling for passage of the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.
Among the supporters:
Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Dean Heller, US Senators from Nevada – a state with the fastest growing Filipino population in the nation.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia – two key states, which always figure prominently in national elections, with Filipino Americans assuming the role of “swing voters.”
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – relatively smaller states but with significant numbers of Filipino Americans asserting their presence.
And 21 U.S. Representatives, all Democrats. A handful of Republicans were expected to sign on but a leadership crisis (triggered by a failure to elect House Speaker John Boehner’s successor) got in the way.
The congressional resolution basically notes the contributions to America by Filipinos and Filipino Americans, notably World War II veterans, farm workers and labor leaders, nurses, doctors and health professionals, artists and architects, educators and entertainers, entrepreneurs and elected officials.
Rozita Lee, of Las Vegas and former WHIAAPI Commissioner, is among those invited to the White House Summit of Filipino American community leaders.
But it was President Obama who kicked-off the national commemoration with his October 1 Proclamation. He enjoined all Americans to reflect on “the struggles and victories of the many Filipino Americans who have helped shaped our Nation” and to “celebrate the extraordinary ways Filipino Americans have contributed to our country.”
The president noted that the victory of Allied forces during World War II was “made possible in part by thousands of Filipino Americans who fought for our Nation but who, for far too long, were denied the compensation they had earned.”
The next day, Obama hosted – through the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) – more than 200 Filipino American leaders from across the country.
They toured the White House in the morning, and in the afternoon they assembled in a large hall where they were addressed and entertained by Nani Coloretti, the highest ranking Filipino American in the Obama administration and the Number Two official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Apl.de.ap of Black Eyed Peas and a few others.
USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez breaks the news about parole visas for families of Filipino World War II veterans during the White House FAHM celebration.
Timed with the occasion for maximum effect was the much-awaited announcement that the Department of Homeland Security would soon be processing parole visas for families of Filipino World War II veterans. No less than Leon Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, broke the news to a cheering crowd.
It will be recalled that President Obama, frustrated by Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform, has taken upon himself to issue executive orders granting immigration relief to undocumented immigrants.
Knowing how broken the immigration system is, the president also took executive action to fast-track the visa petitions of family members who have been waiting for years (20 in most cases) to reunite with their aging parents. It is estimated that from 2,000 to 6,000 Filipino Veterans still residing in the U.S. will benefit from this humanitarian gesture.
Call to Action
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), a bipartisan group of lawmakers, also noted the valuable role Filipinos – notably World War II veterans – have played in the nation’s pursuit of peace and prosperity.
On October 1, CAPAC hosted a press conference in the U.S. Capitol. Led by Sen. Maize Hirono (Dem.-Hawaii), and joined by U.S. Representatives Mike Honda (Dem.-Calif.), Grace Meng (Dem.-New York), Mark Takai (Dem. Hawaii) and Madeleine Bordallo (Dem.-Guam), they called on their colleagues to sign on to the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015. Its passage will once and for all secure official recognition of the 260,000 Filipino and Filipino American soldiers who served in World War II.
In the days following the kick-off events, a number of Filipino Americans from California, Florida Illinois, Nevada, Texas and Washington fanned out to different Capitol Hill offices, urging their US Representatives and Senators to support the Congressional Gold Medal legislation. As a result, seven more Senators and four more U.S. Representatives signed up as co-sponsors.
Month in the sun
Just hours before the October 1 deadline, on the morning after Congress voted to avert a government shutdown, Obama expressed relief and remarked that “we should celebrate where we can.” Soon after, he issued his proclamation calling for the celebration of Filipino American History Month.
HUD Deputy Secretary Nani Coloretti conveys President Obama’s greetings to the more than 200 Filipino American leaders who came from across the country to attend the White House Celebration of Filipino American History Month.
As it turned out, averting a shutdown was propitious, which made the celebration happen: CAPAC didn’t have to cancel its press conference; the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders didn’t have to postpone the Tour and White House event; and Capitol Hill offices remained open for their constituents.
“You know, it’s a good indicator that you’ve arrived when you don’t only have your own month but that the White House is saying they want to celebrate it, too,” said Coloretti in her opening keynote remarks.
“The Filipino American culture deserves its month in the sun,” chimed in New York Senator Chuck Schumer in his press statement honoring FAHM.
But the sun was nowhere to be found in Washington’s dark skies during the first three days of October. Hurricane Joaquin was passing through and tried to grab all the attention. But it didn’t matter. The spirit of Filipino American History Month in the nation’s capital asserted itself with Pinoy-style humor and laughter, despite relentless drizzle and soggy weather.
“Well take this over a government shutdown, anytime, rain or shine,” said Rozita Villanueva Lee, former WHIAAPI Commissioner who flew in from sunny Las Vegas.