No way home for Filipino ‘Amerasians’

Obama’s imminent Philippines visit and a new deal over US army bases opens up painful past for ‘Amerasians’.

There are at least 50,000 Amerasians living in the Philippines, but they are not legally recognised by the US government [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Angeles City, Philippines It is only mid-afternoon, but foot traffic is already stirring in the centre of Angeles City, an hour’s drive north of Metro Manila. Margarita Station, a favourite watering hole for US soldiers, from nextdoor Clark Air Base, is filled with Westerners. Patrons clutching half-empty beer bottles and puffing smoke sit idly, while women in stilettos and skimpy denim shorts walk by in the summer heat.

As she drove past the main strip known as the “Walking Street”, Christine Jackson wondered how many of these working women would face the same fate as many single mothers before them – those who gave birth to “Amerasians”. She thought about those thousands of children who grew up not knowing their American fathers, or who were abandoned by their own mothers.

The term “Amerasians”, coined by Nobel Prize-winning author and activist Pearl S Buck, refers to the children of Asian women and American soldiers stationed across Asia. A 1982 US law allowed those children to move to the US and eventually become American citizens, but those who were from the Philippines were excluded from the law. An effort to correct the omission was rejected by the US Senate, which held that many Filipino “Amerasians” were conceived from illicit affairs and prostitution and were born during peacetime.

“I was already 17 when I found my father on Facebook,” Jackson told Al Jazeera. “But I’m still lucky. Some of my friends don’t even know the names of their fathers, or were given away for adoption when they were infants.”

Christine’s mother, Ana, was 20 when she fell in love with a US marine from Michigan and got pregnant. But before she gave birth, the would-be father of her child had ended his tour of duty and returned to the US. Heartbroken, Ana called off the relationship and left her infant child, Christine, to her grandmother’s care.

Obama visit unlikely to address Amerasians’ plight

A former US colony between 1898 and 1946, the Philippines was home to millions of US soldiers and their dependents. Until 1992, the country hosted two of the largest US military facilities outside the US – Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, which played major roles during the Vietnam and first Gulf wars. The volcanic eruption of Mt Pinatubo and the Philippine Senate vote rejecting a US treaty forced the closure of these bases. But later this week, the Philippines aims to sign a security agreement that will give US armed forces access to the country’s military bases.

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When the Philippines kicked out the US military in 1992, servicemen left at least 50,000 Filipino Amerasian children like Jackson. About 10,000 of them were from Angeles City. A recent Michigan State University study pegged their number at 250,000, to include second and third generation descendants across the Philippines. But none has been recognised as American, despite US paternity.  

As the Philippines signs the new deal allowing thousands of US troops to return to the country, campaigners have warned against repeating that history, with thousands of new “Amerasians” consigned to a future of neglect and poverty.

Many in the Amerasian community told Al Jazeera that President Barack Obama’s visit to the country on April 28 is unlikely to address their plight.

“There is no possibility of formal recognition of Filipino Amerasian rights, until a provision is actually written into the military agreement” between the Philippines and the US, said Aida Santos Maranan, head of Wedpro, a national women’s rights group in the Philippines.

“The presence of more US troops is not only going to exacerbate the problem of discrimination against Filipino Amerasians, but also compromises our sovereignty as a nation,” Maranan told Al Jazeera.

Maranan said that while the Amerasian issue requires changes in US immigration laws, the Philippine government bears the greater burden for failing to bargain hard with the US government over the legal recognition of Amerasian children.

Although nothing in the 1982 US law indicates why the final version excluded Filipino Amerasians, “one can speculate that Congress was concerned that the Act might induce a larger influx of Amerasians than it desired,” said PC Kutschera, a researcher at the Philippine Amerasian Research Center

‘I don’t know where I belong’

For Purificacion Gilbore, a community leader who has been advocating for the rights of sex workers in Angeles City, Obama’s visit serves US interests more than that of the Philippines.

“It will not change anything,” Gilbore told Al Jazeera. “It only means more US troops are coming to this city, more women working as entertainers and possibly more Amerasians born into poverty. The cycle will only continue.”

Purificacion Gilbore, 65, said that as many as 30,000 women worked as “entertainers” in bars frequented by US soldiers near Clark Air Base [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

While most of the active US servicemen left in 1992, Americans have never really left Angeles, said Gilbore. Many retirees stayed – and following the rejection of the bases treaty, the US and Philippine governments eventually signed the Visiting Forces Agreement, allowing “temporary” visits and joint military exercises.

John Michael Rodero, 25, and his twin brother, RG, grew up witnessing the transformation of Angeles and Clark from a military base into a commercial centre. Those years also saw Rodero struggling to find his identity as an African Amerasian, growing up in a community unfriendly to dark-skinned children.

“I experienced bullying at school and in the playground for sure,” Rodero told Al Jazeera. “But that didn’t last because I always fought back.”

Growing up in Angeles City, Rodero said he constantly yearned to find his father.

“Who doesn’t want to experience the love of a father,” he asked. “But I don’t know about my mother, because she doesn’t even remember my father’s name. So how can I even find him?”

Rodero admitted that his struggle for identity has frayed his relationship with his siblings and his mother. He now lives independently and works as an entertainer and dancer at a club for women in Angeles.   

For Jackson, whose father is Caucasian, part of the challenge growing up was trying to determine if she was Filipino or American.

“I look like my father, so there’s no question that I am an American,” said Christine, who is a spokesperson for the United Philippine Amerasians organisation. “In fact Filipinos always see me as an American. But I do not have the papers to show for it. To the Americans, I am Filipino.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know where I belong.”

Christine and her fellow Amerasians are entitled to American citizenship – but their American parents must file paternity claims no later than their 18th birthday to secure it. Otherwise, they remain Filipinos with no American identity. With many of them fatherless, that search for an American identity remains elusive. Meanwhile, most of the fathers have also not stepped up to find their children in the Philippines – and even if they did, those children are already too old to claim citizenship.   

At 22, Christine said she has accepted that she will remain Filipino. But she still wants to visit and see her father, who now lives in the US state of Wisconsin.    

“We live in a place where we don’t know we really belong to,” she said. “It’s unfair for the children. We just want recognition.”  

Source: Al Jazeera