NEW YORK CITY — Is the United States government’s granting of the Temporary Protected Status to the Philippines evolving from a humanitarian concern into a geopolitical maneuvering?
The Philippine government sent a note verbale to the U.S. State Department requesting TPS designation on Dec. 13, one month after the Southeast Asian nation was devastated by Super Storm Haiyan. More than two months have passed since then but nothing has been heard from the U.S. Department of State, which makes the recommendation, and the Department of Homeland Security, which grants the designation.
So what’s the holdup? What’s preventing the U.S. from granting the Philippines’ request for TPS?
But first, here’s a quick backgrounder about TPS and the Philippines’ request for such a designation.
The TPS is a humanitarian relief that the U.S. grants to nationals of a country going through an extraordinary crisis as a result of an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, an epidemic, etc. With the designation, migrants in the U.S. who cannot return to their troubled home country are allowed to stay and work temporarily in the United States without fear of being deported. They can also apply for travel authorization and be allowed to return.
That the Philippines was devastated by a natural disaster is an understatement. Super storm Haiyan, considered the strongest storm ever to hit land anywhere in recorded history, left more than 6,000 dead, over 28,000 injured and more than 1,700 still missing. Roughly 14 million people were left homeless and displaced.
The Philippines’ National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimated the total damage and loss from Typhoon Haiyan at PhP571 billion, or about $13 billion. “Two months after the storm, the scale and spread of humanitarian needs is still daunting,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) said in its January report.
There are three elements required before the U.S. can grant TPS designation, namely an environmental disaster, a nation’s temporary inability to absorb the return of its nationals and an official request for TPS designation. Clearly, all three requirements are present in the Philippines’ case.
This leads us back to the question. What’s holding up the granting of the TPS designation for the Philippines?
Let’s backtrack a little and revisit the events right after Haiyan unleashed its fury back in December last year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Philippines, on December 17 and 18 to be exact. While there, he announced the United States will provide the Philippines with $40 million in new military assistance. This is on top of the $87 million that Washington has already pledged for humanitarian relief effort. And for that, the Filipino people have expressed their heartfelt gratitude.
But at the same time, Secretary Kerry also expressed the U.S.’ desire to have “greater access” and greater military presence in the Philippines. Kerry said in Manila that the U.S. was negotiating with the Aquino government for an “increased rotational presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines.”
For the U.S., an increased rotational presence, or IRP, in the Philippines would be a major step toward attaining its new foreign policy thrust known as the Pacific Pivot, a rebalancing of the U.S. foreign policy aimed at reasserting the U.S.’ military presence in the Pacific Rim.
Is it possible then that the granting of the TPS designation and the pledge of new aid are tied to the Philippines’ agreeing to give the U.S. greater military access? Is the U.S. capable of such carrot-and-stick tactic?
Perhaps the long history of U.S.-Philippines relations can offer an answer. We can draw parallelism between what is happening now after Typhoon Haiyan and what happened immediately after World War II.
After fighting side-by-side with the United States in World War II, the Philippines emerged as the second most devastated country, next only to Poland. But in 1946, the U.S. Congress refused to pay more than $500 (yes, no additional zeros follow that amount) in war damage compensation to the Philippines unless the Manila government approves the Bell Trade Act, also known as the Philippine Trade Act.
The Bell Trade Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1945, allowed for unlimited entry of American goods into the Philippines but subjected Philippine products such as sugar, coconut oil, tobacco and cordage to U.S. quotas until 1954. Worse, the Bell Trade Act gave “parity rights” to U.S. businesses in the Philippines. This means U.S. businesses have the same rights as Philippine citizens in exploiting Philippine natural resources, in acquiring rights to land of public domain and in owning and operating public utilities.
The Philippine Constitution at that time provided that all corporations operating in the Philippines should be 60-percent owned by Filipinos. But the fledgling Philippine government gave in; amending its Constitution to allow 100-percent U.S. owned corporations to do business in the Philippines.
To many Filipino historians and local government leaders at that time, the Bell Trade Act was one of the major schemes of the U.S. to maintain economic control over the newly independent Philippines.
Fast forward to today. For the two countries, which have been close allies historically, it has come to this – the Philippines, the former colony, asking permission to allow its citizens to stay temporarily in the United States while it rebuilds its devastated homeland, and the U.S., the former colonial master, wanting to station its soldiers in the Philippines because it wants to reestablish an empire.
The question now is whether the U.S. will grant the Philippines’ TPS designation request pending the Manila government’s acquiescing to the U.S.’ wish for increased rotational presence.
Given the historical precedent, it is not far-fetched to assume that the U.S. is not beyond resorting to such strong-arm tactics to get want it wants.
(Noel Pangilinan is an adjunct professor of Philippine history at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in The Bronx, and the editor of ImmigraNation.com, a website for immigrant rights. He is also a member of the TPS for the Philippines Now coalition.)