Senate approves Congressional Gold Medal Bill for Filipino World War II veterans

Wreath-laying ceremony during the 74th Bataan Day Commemoration held  recently at the World War II Memorial, National  Mall

Wreath-laying ceremony during the 74th Bataan Day Commemoration held recently at the World War II Memorial, National Mall

The U.S. Senate today approved by unanimous consent S. 1555, the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) Act of 2015, a measure that would grant national recognition to the more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers who served under the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

Introduced in June last year by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), with U.S. Senator Dean Heller (D-NV) as lead co-sponsor, the bill gained bipartisan co-sponsorship of 72 U.S. Senators – a super majority that demonstrates the support needed to merit moving the bill in an expedited manner. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) also played key roles in moving S. 1555 this far.

“Our veterans and their families have been waiting for this awesome news,” says Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), chair of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP). “They will be very pleased and proud to know that the U.S. has not forgotten their wartime service to this country. We call on the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and finally make this long-awaited recognition a reality for our soldiers who performed their duty with honor and uncommon valor.”

To date, the House companion bill, HR 2737, which was also introduced in June last year by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2), with U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck (R-NV-3) as lead co-sponsors, currently has 168 co-sponsors. It is expected, however, that today’s Senate’s action will help build momentum to gather more bipartisan support in the House.

“We are extremely grateful to Sen. Hirono and Sen. Heller for their personal commitment and determination to push this bill through,” says Marie Blanco, FilVetREP Vice Chair. “They championed this very important legislation because they appreciate the urgency of getting it passed this year.”

Blanco also thanked the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over CGM legislation, for “giving the green light to pass this bill by unanimous consent. We are appreciative as well of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), U.S, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) for their leadership in promptly facilitating the approval process.”

Informed of this Senate action, 85-year-old Rudy Panaglima, a Filipino World War II veteran of Arlington, Va. welcomed the news with a sense of joy and relief. “My comrades and I have been waiting for more than 70 years, so I am delighted that we will finally be recognized,” he said. “I can only say ‘God bless America’ for doing the right thing.”

Panaglima is among 15,000 surviving veterans residing in the U.S. and the Philippines. Most of them are in their mid 90’s. They served in the USAFFE as Philippine Scouts, members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army and Recognized Guerillas.

The Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) is the highest award bestowed by U.S. Congress to an individual or group who performed a significant achievement that has impact in American history and culture.

Meanwhile,  JT Mallonga, National Chair of The National Federation of Filipino American Associations ( NaFFaa) said  “We are extremely pleased to hear the good news coming from the White House, that Filipino World War II Veterans will soon be reunited with their families. They have endured so much pain waiting for many years for this to happen. But with this latest executive action by the Obama administration, our ailing and aging heroes will no longer be separated from their loved ones.”

The immigration relief announced today is part of a report issued by the Visa Modernization Task Force, an inter-agency group created in November as part of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The Department of Homeland Security will now work with the State Department to establish a program that allows eligible family members of the veterans to come to the U.S. under parole status on a case-by-case basis, rather than through the general family immigration process. As a White House official pointed out to “The Huffington Post,” “These are people who are eligible for an immigration visa by virtue of their U.S. citizen family member, who also happens to be a veteran who served in the World War II. But because the family immigration system is so backlogged, it can take decades for them to actually get a visa.”

Mallonga also thanked Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) for its advocacy of family reunification, calling on President Obama to grant parole for children of Filipino War World II veterans. Mee Moua, AAJC President and Executive Director, points out that  “Even though the U.S. government promised Filipino World War II veterans U.S. citizenship in recognition of their service and contributions to America, it took more than 50 years before they actually received citizenship.  Until now, the inhumanely long visa backlog has separated them from their children and denied them the opportunity to live together in the United States. We’re grateful the Obama Administration is taking action so our veterans can be reunited with their children and receive the love and care they need during their golden years. It’s long past time the United States made good on its promise and we hope USCIS will implement this as soon as possible.”

“We appreciate as well the efforts of our US Representatives and Senators who have championed the cause of our veterans,” adds Mallonga.  “They, like Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, have tried over the years to push for a bill on this issue, fighting to end the visa backlog for the sons and daughters of our veterans. We agree with her that today’s action of expediting reunification is long overdue and the right thing to do.”

Marites “Bing” Branigin, Capitol Region Chair of NaFFAA, welcomed the news with mixed feelings. “My first reaction was happiness,” she says. “But I am also saddened remembering our veterans like Manong Emong Guillermo and Jack Tejada and community champions like Alex Esclamado, who walked the halls of Congress, fighting for recognition and family reunification. They are gone now but their legacy lives on.” As Capital Region Chair, Branigin works closely with AAJC and other immigrant rights and veterans advocacy groups in fighting for the veterans’ cause.

As many as 26,000 Filipino World War II veterans became U.S. citizens, and an estimated 6,000 of them are still alive and living here, according to the White House.


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