Filipinos wait (and wait some more) for immigration reform

Wait applies even for WWII veterans’ families, who hope policy change speeds up reunification

February 26, 2013

Remedios Cabagnot keeps a shrine of small, framed photos and trinkets above the television in the Lakeview condo she shares with her adult son. They’re photos of family members, and one is a black-and-white image of a young man in his army suit. It’s Cabagnot’s late husband, Serviliano, who was among hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who fought the Japanese under U.S. command during World War II. “We really fought for them,” Cabagnot reminisces. “I can still remember the war. I was a teenager then.”

Remedios, 86, is now saddled with a bevy of health troubles, including gout and lung problems. She has been fighting a separate battle of her own these last twenty years, one to reunite with her other grown children in the US. “It’s a land of honey,” she says, smiling. “We loved America and we wanted to see America.”

Remedios arrived in the U.S. in 1993, joining her husband who had come just a few years earlier through the Immigration Act of 1990. That act contained a special provision to allow Filipino World War II veterans to immigrate to the US. Their son Adolph was already in the U.S., but they left behind their other three adult children, assuming it would not take long to obtain visas for them and their families.

“We petitioned them right away, [in] ‘93,” Remedios recalls. “They gave us requirements: Do this, do that, so we did that. We filed everything, and then they were all approved.” Remedios’ oldest son, Alphonsus, was approved in 1993, before the others. Remedios said her family is tight-knit, and they were encouraged by the speed with which the reunification petitions were approved.

But the Cabagnots discovered the bottleneck in family reunifications that has hindered many immigrants from establishing complete lives in the U.S.: The federal government caps the number of family reunification visas each year for non-dependent and non-immediate relations.

When the number of approved petitions exceeds the cap, it creates a queue. The longest queues are for prospective immigrants from China, India, Mexico, and, longest of all, the Philippines.

Last month the State Department was just getting to some Filipino visa applications from April of 1989. Among those in line are children of Filipino war veterans. Jerry Clarito, Executive Director of the Chicago-based Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment, says this does not honor those veterans. “They were in the front line of the battle. Now they are behind, waiting,” he says. “So what happened with the veterans who came here? They came here, they continued contributing to America, but they’re doing it alone.”

Clarito plans to mobilize Filipinos now that Washington is revisiting the issue of immigration reform, and he has already started reaching out to congressional representatives. He says an obvious solution would be to exempt Filipino veterans’ children from the cap on family reunification visas, much like young, dependent children are not subjected to a limit.

Clarito said the local Filipino community did not push hard for such a change in 2007, the last year that Congress considered comprehensive immigration reform measures. But this time around, Clarito hopes lawmakers will seize the opportunity, even if they would only affect a small fraction of immigrant families. “It’s a very, very small change, compared to the millions [of undocumented immigrants],” he says. “But to make this humane, and really comprehensive, we have to listen to those voices that are usually not being heard.”

The story of Remedios Cabagnot and her children, meanwhile, has only gotten more complicated. After 17 years of waiting, Remedios’ oldest son, Alphonsus, got a visa number in 2010. But before he completed the final requirements to come to the U.S., his father, Serviliano Cabagnot, fell ill. Serviliano was hospitalized, and died at 91, before Alphonsus was able to come.

Remedios was then dealt a second blow when she received a letter from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We were all devastated when they told us that our prayers and petitions died with my husband.” Because veteran Serviliano Cabagnot had been the sponsor for the visa petitions, the petitions were revoked with his death.

Remedios’ attempts to change the sponsorship of her children’s petitions to her name have been twice rejected. Last month, she appealed directly to Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, with the hope that his office might intervene. In an email to WBEZ, Durbin wrote “It should be much easier to replace one U.S. citizen immediate family member with another on visa petitions – it’s common sense particularly in this case.”

In the meantime, Remedios and her children email each other updates on the status of visas, ever hopeful. “I miss my children so much,” she says. “My grandchildren, some are married. I miss them so much.”

Follow Odette Yousef on Twitter @oyousef

Correction: The original version of this story stated Remedios Cabagnot's age as 89. She is 86.