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Map of the Philippine Islands
Early Days

In 1898, when the Philippine Islands became a colonial possession of the United States, Filipino immigration to the U.S. boomed. Many came to work as agricultural laborers in Hawaii and the West Coast states. Others attended universities in Chicago, New York, and other major cities. In Chicago, in 1920, the census counted 154 Filipino immigrants. Just ten years later, that number had risen to almost two thousand.

Stay, or Go?

Most Filipino students planned to return home after graduation. For one thing, job opportunities in the U.S. were limited; even with college degrees, racial discrimination prevented many Filipinos from finding jobs in their chosen fields. Another problem was that over 90% of the immigrants were male. If a young man wanted to marry a Filipina, he pretty much had to go home.

But by the time the students earned their degrees, some had already formed relationships with American women. Most of these were Caucasian; a substantial number were taxi dancers. Taxi-dance halls, unlike a lot of nightclubs or public ballrooms, welcomed Filipino customers—with the result that many young Filipino men spent much of their time and money there. Not surprisingly, romances between customers and dancers bloomed.

Just about everybody (except the couples themselves, of course) disapproved of these interracial relationships. Many whites believed that Filipinos were an inferior race, and that white women were degraded by association with them. Others argued that, since the women involved tended to be taxi dancers or other "degenerate" or "predatory" types, that it was really the young men who were in need of protection. Several states passed laws prohibiting the marriage of whites and Filipinos. But in Illinois such marriages remained legal, and many Filipino students in Chicago did marry Caucasian women.

The Tydings-McDuffie Act

In 1934, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which set a date for Philippine independence from the U.S. The act also severely limited Philippine immigration, by allowing only 50 Filipinos into the U.S. each year. And—most importantly for those already here—any Filipino who left America was no longer allowed to return. These changes made it even more difficult for Filipinos in the U.S. to consider going home.

World War II

More changes were to come. The same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they also attacked the Philippine Islands. As per treaties between the Philippines and the United States, native Filipinos were drafted to serve alongside the U.S. military in defense of the islands. But the Philippines fell to the Japanese. Thousands of soldiers—both Filipino and American—were either killed or taken prisoner. Thousands more died on the Bataan Death March and in Japanese POW camps.

The American military pulled out of the Philippines, but Filipino troops continued to engage in guerilla warfare for the next four years, preventing the Japanese from completely taking over the islands. In return, President Roosevelt and the United States Congress promised that these native Filipinos, along with all other non-Americans serving in the U.S. armed forces, would receive full veterans' benefits and naturalization as U.S. citizens.

Filipino immigrants in America were also eager to fight for their country. They were allowed to join the Navy—but not in combat positions. Despite their protests, they were restricted to steward rating. Unable to change Navy policy, they took these positions and served with distinction.

Filipino troops serving in the U.S. military in WWII

Promises Broken

In 1946, one year after the war ended, the Philippines gained its independence as promised by the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Not all promises, however, were honored. That same year, Congress passed the Rescissions Act, which withdrew the offer of veterans' benefits and citizenship to those Filipinos who had fought for the U.S. military. This act singled out only Filipinos; other non-Americans from 66 nations who had served in the U.S. armed forces were not affected.

By the end of World War II, there were approximately 250,000 Filipino veterans. Today, only about 20,000 still survive. They, Filipino-American organizations, and a few members of Congress continue to fight to have their wartime service honored and their rightful benefits restored.

WWII Filipino Veterans

For more information:

Filipino American Lives, Yen Le Espiritu, Temple University Press, 1995.

In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, Stanley Karnow, Ballantine Books, 1989.

Pinoy: The First Wave, Roberto B. Vallangca, Strawberry Hill Press, 1977.

Images of America: Filipinos in Chicago, Estrella Ravelo Alamar and Willi Red Buhay, Arcadia Publishing, 2001.

The Taxi-Dance Halls: A Sociological Analysis, Paul G. Cressey, Patterson Smith Publishing Co., 1932.

Check the Current Status of the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007

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