BY STEVEN RAGA
This piece was published in the 29th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
[Comprehensive immigration reform] directly affects our families and our communities. Let’s take this opportunity to engage our political leaders and let them know how much we care about reuniting families.
In 2019, National Federation for Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) offers an example of how Asian American organizations are recalibrating to strengthen their policy and advocacy initiatives, promote intergenerational governance of the organization, increase national and local partnership initiatives, and establishing procedures for transnational policy advocacy. This article highlights the strategic alliances, collaboration processes, and strategic restructuring that describe NaFFAA’s organizational vision. The vision builds upon previous successful policy campaigns and programming, while providing recommendations to consider for scaling up through the creation of partner entities and functional organizing.
With approximately 4 million Filipino Americans in 2015, the population has nearly doubled its estimate from a decade earlier. The upsurge in population brings forth new challenges for the community, including a proportional need of disaggregated data for AAPIs on every level of research, bridging the cultural gap with acculturated Filipino Americans and newly arrived immigrants, and increased funding for Filipino American community centers that provide direct services in largely Filipino neighborhoods, just to name a few. Locally, these vital community centers are struggling to stay open as their programs begin to get disproportionate funding in relation to other Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) centers.
Nationally, coordinated advocacies for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, recognition for Filipino American WWII Veterans, and Philippine dual-citizenship are crucial policy concerns for the Filipino community in the United States. Over the past two decades, organizations like the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) have elevated these issues within the public imagination, playing a vital role in the fight for Temporary Protective Status, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, World War II veterans’ recognition, and others. Through both paid staff and volunteer boards on the national, regional, and state level, NaFFAA employs both a professional advocacy model and a volunteer citizen advocacy model to help support a wide breadth of policy priorities.
Comprehensive immigration reform has continuously been an issue that pushes Filipino Americans to work collaboratively with other ethnic groups. As a member of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), NaFFAA has joined other national AAPI organizations in supporting issues pertinent to the pan-AAPI audience, including comprehensive immigration reform. As National Chairperson, Ed Navarra encouraged all NaFFAA chapters to write and call their federal representatives as comprehensive immigration reform “directly affects our families and our communities. Let’s take this opportunity to engage our political leaders and let them know how much we care about reuniting families.” With former Maryland Delegate David Valderrama who led the delegation, NaFFAA “met with legislative aides of U.S. senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski”. NaFFAA continuously supports this issue by holding regular local and national policy forums to update community leaders, conducting visits with federal representatives in their district and D.C. offices to articulate continued support, and encouraging their members to contact their representatives as in-district constituents.
More recently, Filipino Americans rallied behind Pulitzer Prize-winning Jose Antonio Vargas and his Define American campaign. As Vargas gained nationwide attention as an undocumented American from the Philippines, he made it a point to work with undocumented Americans from all backgrounds. Vargas himself flew in with then NaFFAA Vice Chairperson J.T. Mallonga to Las Vegas for the 2011 NaFFAA Strategic Planning Conference and introduced himself to the organization’s national board months before his official coming out as an undocumented American was front page of the Sunday New York Times. With Vargas’ initiatives as a component to jumpstart other campaigns, many Filipino American organizations have become more comfortable to collaborate more with communities outside the pan-AAPI space to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Local chapters have held immigration policy forums across the country; Vargas has spoken at a number of these forums, as well as the 2014 NaFFAA National Empowerment Conference. NaFFAA has unanimously and openly endorsed the passing of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act in the US House of Representatives and Senate. Comprehensive immigration reform, along with the campaign for disaggregated AAPI data, will stay on top of NaFFAA’s national and local policy efforts moving forward.
World War II Veterans Recognition is one of the longest-lasting federal policy issues that Filipino American advocates have been fighting for. The founding conference of NaFFAA coincided with chants of “Equity Now!” for the Filipino World War II Veterans or ”FilVets”, during which conference delegates, including WWII veterans, marched on the White House, chained themselves to the fence, and were arrested. One of those arrested included Congressman Bob Filner of San Diego. Loida Nicolas-Lewis recalls the moment when, “Our aspirations for empowerment [were] tied to the struggle of our Filipino veterans. We have to raise our voices and fight for them in the halls of Congress, if we want Washington’s policymakers to take us seriously as a political force.” After the passage of the Rescission Act of 1946, which stripped veterans benefits from Filipinos who fought under United States command, advocates have struggled for six decades for Filipino WWII Veterans to realize full equity, which have included petitions and in several instances, litigation. In 2009, Filipino WWII Veterans were given a lump sum of $9,000-$15,000, issued dependent on United States residence. However with over 41,000 claims filed, only a limited number of applicants have been found eligible.
In January of 2015, United States Senators Dean Heller of Nevada (Republican), Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii (Democrat) and Congresswoman Grace Meng of New York (Democrat) launched a bipartisan effort to address this injustice again. On top of advocating for benefits, the recent and successful push to grant Filipino WWII Veterans the Congressional Gold Medal has taken the forefront. The medal was formally awarded to Filipino American WWII veterans in 2017 because of the support and advocacy of community organizations, including NaFFAA and the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetRep), which is chaired by retired United States Major General Tony Taguba. . Through this process, NaFFAA has helped identify eligible veterans or families for the medal, extensive campaign information dissemination, and fundraising efforts for FilVetRep. Taguba is now bringing the lessons learned from FilVetRep to help the Chinese WWII veterans to also be honored with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Filipino Americans, like other AAPI subgroups, have been involved in transnational politics for decades. Organizations, such as the Kalayaan Collective, the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP), the National Coalition for the Restoration of Civil Liberties in the Philippines (NCRCLP) and others, were heavily involved in the politics in the Philippines during the 1960s-1980s. They took on a transnational identity, whose spirit is still embodied Filipino American activists across the country today. The Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP), or the Union of Democratic Filipinos, emerged in 1973. KDP was founded on a “dual line,” which supported the “struggle for socialism in the United States and National Democracy in the Philippines”. Their advocacy against the Marcos dictatorship as a diaspora community directly contributed in political struggle from afar. Their advocacy shaped “the nation-building processes of two or more nation-states” via “long-distance nationalism”, the concept that activists can “live their politics long-distance”. The international perspective continued with Loida Nicolas-Lewis as Chairperson for NaFFAA, through which they won dual citizenship for Filipino Americans and voting rights abroad. The successful campaign resulted in a more sensible rollout and application of the Philippines’ Dual Citizenship Act or Republic Act No. 9225: The Citizenship Retention and Reacquisition Act of 2003, which declared “that natural-born citizens of the Philippines who become citizens of another country shall be deemed not to have lost their Philippine citizenship”.Dual Citizenship and Overseas Absentee Voting enhance the welfare of both Filipinos and Filipino Americans. Dual Citizenship offers the rights and privileges of all Filipino citizens, including “the right to travel with a Philippine passport, the right to own real property in the Philippine, the right to engage in business and commerce as a Filipino, and the right to practice one’s profession, provided that a license or permit to engage in such practice is obtained from the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC), or the Supreme Court in the case of lawyers”. Through a class action lawsuit in the Philippine Supreme Court, NaFFAA also safeguarded Absentee Voting for Filipino Dual Citizens in the United States. The protection was granted after efforts to call on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to “recertify as urgent House Bill 10720, otherwise known as the Overseas Absentee Voting Bill”.
National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA)
The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) recently celebrated their 20-year anniversary in Washington, D.C in October 2017. Their gala, themed “NaFFAA 2.0: One Voice, Four Million Strong”, packed in a large hall of Filipino American leaders and community partners to commemorate the milestone. NaFFAA represents a national Filipino American voice and has advocated for a range of policy initiatives over the past two decades. Most notably, NaFFAA has fought tirelessly for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Filipinos affected by natural disasters in the Philippines, Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the U.S., and Veterans Recognition for Filipinos who served during World War II. This reflection focuses on NaFFAA’s strategy and the significance of these policy initiation for the Filipino diaspora and Filipino Americans in the United States.
NaFFAA’s guiding policy principle focuses on building political empowerment for Filipino Americans at all levels of government to advance or protect the political, social, and economic interests of Filipino Americans. The 116th U.S. Congress (2019-2021) demonstrates the lack of national representation among elected officials, such that only two Representatives are of Filipino descent, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia and Congressman TJ Scott of Nevada.
In response to these challenges, there are three important strategies NaFFAA is leveraging to improve the welfare of the Filipino community in meaningful ways. First, NaFFAA and other large organizations alike, are positioned to leverage intergenerational resources via Filipino American collegiate organizations and young professional organizations in advocacy efforts, compared with other long-standing Filipino American advocacy groups. At the local level, the young professionals and students partner with the community organizations in the assisting of local direct services, which vary in relation to their community partners.
Second, NaFFAA is adopting a coalitional lens for its national advocacy. During an era of burgeoning political polarization, NaFFAA leadership displays an expanded commitment on the creation and maintenance of multi-ethnic partnerships, especially in regard to other ethnic groups. Since Filipinos are a historically marginalized ethnic minority in the United States, NaFFAA’s approach seems to result in a more comprehensive network and inclusive partnership opportunities. Such policies prioritized with multi-ethnic advocacy include comprehensive immigration reform, data disaggregation, and human trafficking, which extends internationally.
Third, NaFFAA is continuing to influence international policy. The organization was founded during the post-Marcos dictatorship period, but that has not limited its advocacy to the United States alone. Initiatives have extended into the Philippines itself, working both with government agencies and organizations. In 2002, under the leadership of National Chairperson Loida Nicolas-Lewis, NaFFAA lobbied the Philippine Government for three international programs to help Filipino citizens residing in America. These programs were concentrated on “overseas voting rights, dual citizenship, and a Memorandum of Agreement with the Philippine Government to assist distressed Filipino nationals”.
In his 1997 keynote address to the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue (FIND) Fall Dialogue at the State University in New York at Binghamton, Professor E. San Juan Jr. notes that the students he met were “more seriously engaged in exploring how to achieve ‘success’ or ‘agency’ in the trendy postmodernist lexicon,” rather than facing advocacy issues head on. Since that speech, which coincided with NaFFAA’s founding year, there are signs that the tides are turning with a new generation of committed and capable student leaders, not just at FIND, but across the country. Recent FIND National Chairperson Andrew Esmele highlights their newly launched Alumni Network in an effort “to connect students to over 25 years of alumni, ensuring the passage of knowledge and retention of our history not only as an organization but as a community”. These young working professionals have a longer turnover rate of leadership and serve as better conduits to student organizations as many of them either were once student leaders themselves or already have trusted working relationships with on-campus organizations. This relationship is imperative, as students tend to not have a long-term view with regard to community. Additionally, a recent survey of University of California (UC) students found that Filipino Americans, along with “East Indian and Pakistani American youth were identified as most likely to be Voting Involved,” compared with other AAPI students on campus. With a focus on engagement, NaFFAA has an opportunity to partner with UCs for voter registration drives and outreach to on-campus organizations. Civic engagement also extends to young workers who are also involved in Filipino American community organizations.
One example of how these alumni-student connections are forged is the work of Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro), a premier Filipino American organization comprised of young professionals and students. UniPro prioritizes community advocacy, in addition to professional and career development. Current UniPro Board Chairman, Noel Aglubat stated that “Headquartered in New York City, UniPro’s impact on young Filipino American leadership stretches across the country with chapters rising out of San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, and Houston. They’re a great example of how young professionals can partner to bridge the leadership gap between students and the baby boomer generation, and between 1st generation Americans with the 2nd generation and up.”
In 2014, UniPro and NaFFAA partnered to found Empowering Pilipino Youth through Collaboration (EPYC). Led by Leezel Ramos from NaFFAA and Kirklyn Escondo from UniPro, the nationwide organizing efforts resulted in a summit as the official module for young and emerging leaders at NaFFAA’s 2014 National Empowerment Conference in San Diego. Ramos recalls “Kirklyn and I recognized that student leaders have had a long tradition of organizing on their respective campuses and among colleges across their region. We wanted to create a national space to bring these student leaders together, allow them to learn from one another, and to promote opportunities to continue their leadership beyond graduation”.
NaFFAA, which historically has been primarily comprised of baby boomers, is further supplementing their support for the next generation of leadership by creating a day-long forum to orient students and young professionals to the Capitol Hill advocacy. NaFFAA collaborates with younger leaders on drafting a long-term execution plan to include students in national policy advocacy. This collaborate stems from historical practices of youth leadership development in NaFFAA. Speaking about its founding in 1997, Gloria T. Caoile, also a NaFFAA co-founder, reemphasized that “Our strength as a community is due in large part to the contributions of women, men, young people, and seniors who draw upon one another’s energies and resources. We’ve become a better organization because of their selfless leadership”. As one of the few Filipino American association with a presence in all 50 states, NaFFAA is in a position to begin establishing long-term relationship plans with their younger counterparts not just to leverage gift income contributed by organizations, find volunteers, and in-kind contributions of venue space, but to also identify young community organizers who could continuously participate in advocacy for years to come.
NaFFAA National Chairman Brendan Flores explains “It’s a fact that ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage in terms of health, poverty and education. We have an immense opportunity to come together in order to position the marginalized sectors of society at the center of the development growth. How can we come together as a community if we aren’t brave enough to have genuine conversations that are impacting our people?”
On the national level, NaFFAA is striving to reach out to non-Filipino American organizations and businesses. In a recent National Board Summit in Houston, Texas, NaFFAA national leaders visited Self-Help for African People through Education (SHAPE) Community Center in time to develop a relationship leading up to Black History Month. Citing Professor E.J.R. David’s “We need to resist the internalization of oppression that leads us to buy into the notions of colorism and racism, which leads us to have stereotypical, inferiorizing, and dehumanizing attitudes toward African Americans and dark-skinned individuals. Maybe learning a bit more about the ties between African Americans and Filipin@s will help us with this resistance”, NaFFAA released a statement affirming that “because we celebrate ethnic diversity as a cornerstone of the American condition, let’s all take time out this month to reflect and honor the huge contributions of Black Americans to what we know today as the United States of America”.
Recent high-profile cases of human trafficking of Filipinos into the U.S., through recruitment agencies and their assurance of a H-1B non-immigrant visa, include the Sentosa 27, Jacqueline Aguirre, and the Prince George Teachers. These are all underscored by the sharp community support for the traffic victims, namely from organizations such as the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), GABRIELA USA, and the Migrant Heritage Commission. The Sentosa 27 case was slightly different as they had been given EB-3 status, rather than a temporary worker visa. This highlighted how the nurses were exploited by more unusual methods: “substantial recruiter fees, debt bondage, third-party employment through “body shops” or other intermediaries”.
NaFFAA is in the position to bolster its relationship with the Philippine government, and a formal partnership can be finalized with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Philippine Overseas Employment Association (PEOA), and the Commission of Filipinos Overseas (CFO) under the Office of the President of the Philippines. For the CFO, NaFFAA can help formally identify and recommend nominees for the Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas.
Policy Recommendations for the Filipino American Community
Federal Policy – Temporary Protective Status: TPS has been a hotly pressed issue for Filipino Americans since December of 2013 after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) left a reported 6,300 dead, with an additional 65,000+ missing weeks earlier. When nations are granted TPS during times of national disaster or emergency, the citizens of that country who are currently in the United States are allowed a temporary U.S. employment authorization and legal status for 18 months. The policy was established via the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT), and has been conferred to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone subsequently after the Ebola outbreak in 2014. With many Filipino Americans still tied to the Philippines, and an estimated 600,000 Filipino nationals in the United States at the time, community leaders sought any and every way to help those impacted from the natural disaster. On the ground, countless community leaders, whether affiliated with NaFFAA or other organizations, focused on fundraising to help ease the day-to-day situation, while others focused on attaining TPS. During the campaign to receive TPS, NaFFAA State and Region chapters held forums to drum up additional community support, resulting in 20 senatorial representatives signing onto a letter officially endorsing TPS for Filipino nationals to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. On the national level, then NaFFAA Chairman Eduardo Navarra appealed to the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cuisia Jr., to urge the United States to grant TPS for Filipinos. The Obama administration did not grant TPS to the Philippines, but it is still a priority issue for NaFFAA due to the frequency of natural disasters in the Philippines.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, should be approached by NaFFAA to consider the Philippines for TPS designation, depending on the severity of the flooding experienced in the Philippines during typhoon season. Although annual storms plague the island nation regularly, some years are particularly disastrous for local Filipinos, like 2013. In severe cases like Haiyan, Secretary Nielson should consider designating the Philippines for TPS on the 12-month duration, instead of longest option available of 18 months. 12 months is advisable as it gives sufficient time to oversee the impacts of the subsequent typhoon season, and to consider an automatic 6-month extension if extreme weather persists.
International Policy – Human Trafficking: A recent Urban Institute research study found that within those victims trafficked into the United States, approximately 61% did not know the recruiter before their recruitment meeting in the victims’ country of origin. The study also found instances, not only when U.S.-based companies ignore the recruitment process for foreign workers, but also when the companies “were more intimately involved in fraud and coercion during the recruitment process”. This can possibly be prevented by the PEOA applying an even more strict policy for foreign based recruiting centers. Aside from policies stemming from the Philippines, another component to trafficking into the United States lies in immigration law itself. Since U.S. immigration law is often connected to employers, the law also empowers exploitative employers to “control their immigrant workers, whose lack of familiarity with the laws and customs of the United States already render them vulnerable”.
Filipino American advocacy groups are demanding protection for the rights and welfare of trafficking victims. A partnership between these groups on the ground and Philippine government agencies could create a comprehensive oversight program to monitor high-risk recruitment agencies from Philippines to the United States, as well as generate policy to address trafficking. Although intermediary organizations based in the United States already exist and deliver an additional protective tier against tracking, NaFFAA can readily operate both locally and nationally, meeting with these agencies, determine their level of risk, and provide recommendations for the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (PEOA).
With the influx of millennial leadership in NaFFAA, most notably in the national chairperson and executive director positions, the organization is primed to build upon the successes of previous generations and energetically continue the mission. This inclusion of intergenerational board governance directly attributes to innovative dialogue and cooperation throughout the national board to the state chapter boards. To strengthen its policy advocacy, NaFFAA should identify and enter strategic alliances with the students, other ethnic groups, and the Philippine government. Also recommended are additional entities to work in tandem with the existing 501©3 entity to help scale up membership and legislative advocacy.
Steven Raga currently serves on the Board of Directors for the National Federation for Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), where he was formerly the Region 1 Executive Director and New York State Chairperson. Steven is also a Board Member of Asian Women for Health, and a Board Member for Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro), where he was also its Founder. Steven is a recipient of the National Association of Asian Pacifics in Politics and Public Affairs (NAAPPPA) 40 Under 40 Award, New York Mets Filipino Heritage Spirit Award, the JCI Philippine-New York award for Government Affairs and Social Services, the FANHS Metro-NY Filipino American History Month 2018 Contributions to Excellence Award, the Outstanding Filipino Americans (TOFA) award for Community Service & Advocacy, the Pan-American Concerned Citizens Action League (PACCAL)’s award for Community Service, the Most Outstanding Graduate Student by Cornell University’s Asian & Asian American Center (A3C), and the Youth Leadership Award by Filipinas Magazine.
As a student, he was the Co-President of the Society for Asian American Graduate Affairs (SAAGA) and an active member of Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA) at Cornell University. Steven was also the National Chairman for Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue Inc. (FIND), and the President of the Philippine United Student Organization (PUSO) & Senior Advisor to the Asian Student Alliance (ASA), both at Stony Brook University. Currently, he holds a Graduate Diploma in International Human Rights Law from the American University in Cairo, an MPA from Baruch College School of Public Affairs, an M.A. in Public Policy & B.A. in Political Science from Stony Brook University, a Professional Certificate in Global Affairs from New York University, and a Certificate in Philippine Studies from the University of the Philippines.
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