Tuesday, July 27, 2010


This former colegiala, who made good in the United States, is going back to the Philippines to lead the US Agency for International Development (USAID) efforts to help the country.

News of Filipino-American Gloria Steele’s appointment as USAID mission director for the Philippines have been circulating in the Fil-Am community in Washington DC days before her formal installation last July 20.

Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa was elated by the announcement of her appointment.

“Ms. Steele’s proven track record in development work, especially in the areas of global health, food security and national resource management will help ensure that the US government’s Country Assistance Strategy, whose cross-cutting themes are complimentary to the platform of good governance of President Benigno Aquino III, will be achieved,” he declared.

Before her new assignment, she was Senior Deputy Administrator of USAID’s Global Health Bureau.

Ms. Steele, a graduate of Maryknoll in Quezon City and Kansas State University where she earned her Masters in Agricultural Economics, backed the establishment of a technical group to look into neglected diseases within the US Food & Drug Administration at a Senate appropriations hearing last month.

“This knowledge and experience may be useful to the FDA review group on neglected diseases as it works to identify ways that could help shorten the pathways for bringing medicines for neglected diseases to the market,” she testified.

This could have positive impact on diseases, believed to be long eradicated in the US, that remain virulent threats in the Third World such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Only recently, reports surfaced about the possible resurgence of the mosquito-borne dengue fever in parts of the US.

“Through product development plans, USAID works to ensure that as new products become available and are proven to be effective, they can be quickly introduced in developing countries,” she explained.

At the Senate hearing, she disclosed USAID plans to spend $63 billion in about 80 countries to fight AIDS, TB, malaria and other diseases, especially among women, infants and children.

The Philippines receives millions of dollars every year under various US Global Health Initiative programs.

But Ms. Steele’s new role in the Philippines has added dimensions, taking into account the rather unique objectives of USAID in the country.

While US Special Forces help the Philippine military fight the Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups, USAID money is also the weapon of choice for America’s “smart power” strategy to lift Mindanao from the clutches of Islamic extremism.

The agency spends over 60 cents of every dollar they invest for the Philippines in Mindanao. That amounts to over $350 million since 2001.

The USAID has taught more than 8,000 former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters modern farming techniques, helped build and fund countryside schools, financed roads and small businesses, and brought much-needed health care services to long neglected pockets of Mindanao, Sulu and Basilan.

All these now become Ms. Steele’s responsibility.

This former economics professor now has a unique opportunity to make real impact in the country she once left behind but has now come back home to.


America celebrated yesterday the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark American with Disabilities Act (ADA) with President Obama at the White House.

It was also occasion to meet for the first time the remarkable Jessica Cox (which seemed to overshadow even the fact that it was our first time to report from inside the White House).

She was born without arms, a rare congenital condition that baffled even her doctors.

But that hasn’t stopped her from reaching heights many “normal” people can only dream about, like flying planes or earning a black-belt in Tae Kwon-do or simply driving a car – with her feet.

She was even prettier, bubblier than we imagined, gleaning from the many news reports we’ve seen or read about her extraordinary feats.

We watched how effortlessly she browsed messages on her Blackberry, kept in a backpack that she lugged along during her brief visit to DC.

“He said thank you for being an inspiration and I said thank you, it’s an honor to meet you,” she recounted her conversation with President Obama.

Before the early evening outdoor celebration at the south lawn, a small group – which included Jessica – was allowed in for some private time with the President.

She cracked a joke about the President needn’t worry about Bo, the Obamas’ pet dog, biting her hand, in reference to another presidential pooch who nipped a reporter’s hand.

Mr. Obama, she remembers amusedly, assured her Bo was mild-mannered and better-behaved.

The ADA was groundbreaking legislation that expanded accessibility, punished discrimination and widened opportunities for millions of disabled Americans.

One in six Americans – an estimated 54 million people according to the US Census – suffer from some form of disability.

And yet, winning rights for the disabled was an uphill struggle two decades ago, the President said.

He noted that powerful lobby groups tried to kill the bill on Capitol Hill, worried that mandating the construction of ramps or giving special privileges to disabled Americans would cost businessmen’s pocketbooks dearly.

Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to draw parallels to another piece of important yet contentious legislation – the health reform law – that, he pointed out, would benefit many disabled Americans.

“It grew when you realized you were not alone,” he told the crowd, “it became a massive wave of bottom-up change that swept across the country as you refused to accept the world as it was, and when you were told don’t try, you can’t, you responded with that age-old American creed – yes we can!”

Jessica credits the ADA for opening doors for the disabled.

“In reality, for me to be able to drive, to fly a plane when I really wanted to – just hop into an airplane with my sports pilot certificate – to be able to have that, I realized the ADA has an effect,” she told us.

Yet the struggle continues. The Kessler Foundation and National Organization on Disability conducted a survey that showed 19% of disabled Americans did not get the medical care they needed, mainly because they didn’t have or couldn’t afford health insurance; 21% of the disabled had jobs compared to 59% for those without disabilities; 34% of disabled people said inadequate transportation is a problem compared to 16% of people without disabilities.

But the distance disabled Americans have travelled over the years is largely the result of the individual courage and commitment of people.

People like Jessica Cox who has simply refused to be slowed down by physical limitation.

In fact, she had to leave early to catch a flight to Osh Kosh, Wisconsin that was hosting a big aviation event.

“I’ll be there giving presentations and meeting celebrities like Harrison Ford and Sully Sullenberger and John Travolta, whose first airplane he ever owned was an Air Coupe which is the airplane I fly so I’m looking forward to meeting him,” she says excitedly.

With that she smiled and bid farewell, strung her backpack over shoulder with her teeth and walked towards the 15th Street NW gate.

Like most of the people we saw on the south lawn yesterday, Jessica is proof true grit doesn’t need arms or legs or eyes or ears.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Washington DC Consul General Domingo “Ding” Nolasco showed us the "brand new" Old Chancery building at 1617 Massachusetts Ave. NW, just across the street the current Philippine Embassy building.

It now houses the Philippine consular services in DC. They started processing applications for the e-Passport earlier this month.

It serves the needs of Filipinos in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland, and as far south as Florida and Louisiana, and states in between.

Mr. Nolasco showed us the security features of the new passport that cuts a traveller's face time with immigration officers in airports anywhere in the world.

Filipinos applying for the e-Passport must appear in person. The passport itself is made exclusively by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas printing facility in the Philippines, and shipped by diplomatic pouch to Philippine consulates-general across the US.

The Old Chancery was acquired on November 15, 1941 from Mrs. Stella Stapleton, wife of Daniel Stapleton, owner of two platinum mines in Ecuador and Colombia.

Mrs. Stapleton helped build Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska.

The National Catholic Welfare Conference held meetings at the former residential building, and many welfare and religious projects were reportedly conceived and developed there.

Although the Philippines acquired the property in 1941, the Office of the Resident Commission did not move in until 1943.

When the Philippines achieved independence and became a Republic in 1946, the Office of the Resident Commissioner became the Embassy of the Philippines, and the building became the Chancery.

Incidentally, the Old Chancery directly fronts two streets -- in 1961, on the 19th Anniversary of the Fall of Bataan, in a ceremony attended by Chief Justice Earl Warren (who later chaired the commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination), two small streets along Scott Circle were renamed Bataan Street (behind Daniel Webster’s statue) and Corregidor Street (across Bataan Street).

Friday, July 23, 2010


So how often does an envoy get an American city to name a day for him?

For Ambassador Willy Gaa, the Philippine’s soft-spoken chief diplomat in the US, the answer is: 2.

San Diego and nearby National City in California voted to designate last July 14 as “Willy Gaa Day”.

Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego and National City Mayor Ron Morrison presented their resolutions at gala rites of the Philippine American Business Improvement Development in San Diego, citing Ambassador Gaa’s "lifetime of service to the Philippine community of the world.”

There is a sizeable Fil-Am population in both cities. An indication perhaps of Fil-Am influence in the area, they have their own statue of Jose Rizal.

He’s been Philippine Ambassador to Washington DC for more than four years. Before that, he was consul general in Los Angeles.

A career diplomat, he served for three years as ambassador to Australia in 2002 and then to China in 2003-2006 before the US posting.

He has two law degrees – one from the University of the Philippines and the other from New York University, and is licensed to practice law in California.

Washington DC and the Court of St. James (London) have long been considered the prized assignments for Filipino diplomats, that have on occasions been filled with political appointees.

Rumors would flare periodically about Ambassador Gaa’s imminent recall, and to that he would also respond that he serves at the President’s pleasure.

It is no secret that many are vying for his position.

Washington DC is both a prestige and power posting. As the Philippine’s top trading and security partner, and major benefactor, the US assignment carries some unique challenges.

When Barack Obama became president, Ambassador Gaa was tasked to arrange a meeting with then President Arroyo. As a DC veteran, Mr. Gaa knew only too well the restrictions, even for a “photo-op” for the two leaders. He cautioned Malacanang, but Mrs. Arroyo pursued her hunt for the charismatic first African-American president to the extent of pivoting from a Middle East sortie to attend a prayer breakfast meeting that President Obama was attending.

News that Mrs. Arroyo was winging on her way to Washington DC caught Ambassador Gaa by surprise, insiders tell us. He was said to be already more than halfway across to the continent for a scheduled engagement in the West Coast when he had to turn back so he could welcome Mrs. Arroyo at Andrews Air Base in Maryland.

He has fended off as best he could the political pitfalls of the office, and that has endeared him to the community.

He’s far from flashy (except perhaps for his turns at the karaoke) but people know he gets the work done. Ambassador Gaa helped nurse the Filipino World War II veterans equity compensation bill through Capitol Hill and is pushing for a trade bill that expands garments exports to the US.

Ambassador Gaa is, in many respects, the compleat diplomat and thus, the work is never done especially now there is a new president to serve.


We can still vividly recall the citation that earned newly-appointed Philippine Army chief Maj. Gen. Arturo Ortiz the Medal of Valor in 1990.

He led a Special Forces company on a daring assault at a New People’s Army (NPA) camp in Murcia, Negros Occidental. Even after months of intensive training, the military does not consider them “graduates” until they carry out a successful attack. That was the case for the 606th SF Company in April 1989.

We were then covering the military for the Philippine Star.

To illustrate the kind of training they get, we witnessed on several occasions a favorite drill at rites marking the completion of a training class. A soldier would bite a stick holding a small balloon inches from his face while his “buddy” would pop it with an M-14 rifle from about 50 paces. This taught them trust and teamwork, their officers told us, not to mention of course, the imperative of shooting straight (because they would stay in the jungle for weeks on end, SF soldiers can not carry too much ammunition, and so must make each bullet count).

Then Capt. Ortiz got wind the NPAs were holding their own graduation ceremonies for new cadres at the Murcia camp.

According to the Army account, a frontal attack was ruled out – not only were Ortiz’s troops outnumbered two-to-one but the approaches were well protected with trenches and booby-traps. The NPA chose to build their camp at that spot precisely because it appeared impregnable – the only place they didn’t guard was the cliff behind the camp. They believed – it turned out mistakenly – no one in his right mind would attack from there.

Ortiz, aided by newly trained militia in the 606th, found a route, crawled their way around the rebel camp and to the base of the cliff and slowly scaled it until they could launch a dawn assault that completely surprised the NPAs, killing 85 of them and seizing over 50 high-powered firearms – even today, one of the most audacious military operation in the annals of the Philippine Army.

It may be just coincidence – President Corazon Aquino gave the Medal of Valor to then Capt. Ortiz, and now her son, President Noynoy Aquino has appointed Gen. Ortiz to lead the 80,000-man Philippine Army.

And it was during the turn-over ceremonies at Fort Bonifacio that P-Noy promised soldiers an end to the “bata-bata” and “padrino system” in the military.

He seemed to strike a raw nerve about this apparent flaw among Filipinos – the penchant to cut corners, to take the short-cut, to compromise and strike deals – which has put us repeatedly in hot water.

The recent decision of the US Federation of State Boards for Physical Therapy (FSBPT) to suspend licensure examinations for graduates from the Philippines, India, Egypt and Pakistan has cast, once more, an unflattering eye on cheating in our shores.

Cheating comes in many forms – to deceive, dishonesty, to mislead, elude, to wantonly violate rules.

The FSBPT cited the 2007 raid against the St. Louis Review Center in Manila to buttress their allegations of cheating (they have been reluctant to grant us an interview) although they haven’t really detailed how they arrived at their conclusions.

They alluded to past NPTE test-takers memorizing questions then sharing them with the review center.

Everyone feels the urge to cheat. English playwright Susannah Centlivre observed “man cheats in his own way, and he is only honest who is not discovered.”

We concede this prodigious feat, repeated and filtered from so many past examinees, could enable someone to reconstruct the entire test. All it needs is time and an army of co-conspirators with above-average memory. A tall order, yes, but within the realm of possibility.

But that leads us to the question we posed to healthcare executive Eileen DeCesare, if the FSBPT was so concerned about a leak in the NPTE, why didn’t they mix up questions like what they do for US nursing licensure examinations? So they penalize thousands of foreign-graduate physical therapists wishing to work in the US (where the demand for PTs continue to grow) because of their lack of foresight?

If the sharing of leaked questions is as prevalent as the FSBPT suggests, how can they be sure they haven’t spread to review facilities elsewhere, even in the US itself. So why only the Philippines, India, Egypt and Pakistan? Is it possible test-takers from these countries were simply turning in much better scores than graduates from the US or other countries – that test administrators might have deemed improbable?

If cheating can happen everywhere could it be possible the FSBPT’s bigger problem is not cheating?

That said, there is no denying that this was not the first time Filipino examinees have been tainted with accusations.

“Kung makakalusot” a Pinoy saying goes.

The US government makes strident efforts to catch and punish cheats. They do that regardless of who's in power, 365 days a year. A large chunk of government exists solely to catch and punish cheats.

They might not always succeed, but they're trying hard. The difference in the Philippines, a pal once remarked, is that we are hardly trying.

The business of government should not only be to fend for the life, liberty and happiness of its citizens – but also to ensure they pursue these honestly. Equal protection, a level playing field and justice for all.

P-Noy’s recent messages strike at the core of the problem. Officials abusing their wang-wang is a sure sign of a cheat. Businessmen who pay paltry taxes but splurge on million-peso sports-cars flaunt impunity. People who jump the queue or students who swap hours in the classroom for loiter time in the malls – a lot of “small stuff” that added together, expose the symptoms of a larger disease.

It’s good the President is looking to reward people who have demonstrated the virtues of their profession. For Gen. Ortiz, who as Medal of Valor awardee is considered a living hero, that would be the courage and daring of soldiering.

“Gusto mo maging bayani”. We’ve heard this phrase said much too often with derision, disbelief, disapproval as if buckling the odds, going against accepted practice and challenging others to do the same are wrong. The fact is, the Philippines is in dire need of heroes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Filipinos here and back home are venting their dismay, distress and in many instances, seething anger over a US group’s decision to stop licensure examinations for physical therapists from the Philippines and three other countries.

“I was so frustrated because my brother is one of those affected,” Michael Lange of Miami, Florida wrote ABS-CBN’s Balitang America.

“Our hopes of seeing my brother in the US is gone,” he said, appealing for help.

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) suspended last July 11 the National Physical Therapist Examinations (NPTE) for graduates from the Philippines, Egypt, India and Pakistan.

“You can’t stop yourself from thinking they are discriminating against the four countries,” said Eileen Decesare, president of Virginia-based Professional Healthcare Resources.

The Philippines, China and India are the top suppliers of physical therapists in the US.

“Everybody is taking the same test, so why don’t they look at everybody because they are punishing only these four countries,” she averred, adding, “you begin to wonder what is the underlying reason.”

The FSBPT cited a “breach of security” for suspending the NPTE.

Cheating by recall It pointed to “compelling evidence reflecting systematic and methodical sharing and distribution of recalled questions by significant numbers of graduates of programs in the affected countries.”

The FSBPT said their findings came about after “extensive forensic analyses of exam performances”.

They referred to the police raid against the St. Louis Review Center in Manila in 2007, where alleged evidence of an exam leak was found. They concluded the “sale and sharing of recalled test questions extends beyond this single test preparation company.”

Labor Attache Luzviminda Padilla said at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC, they wanted to meet with FSBPT officials to get to the bottom of the test ban.

“We’re seeking an audience with the Federation so that we can be more clarified on this development and ask about their specific plans. We also want to relay the actions we’re taking on our side to address the issues they have raised,” she explained.

Padilla reveals that her boss in Manila, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, has gathered the various agencies, including the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to act on the FSBPT’s concerns.

“Hopefully if they see that we are taking strong actions, they might be convinced to reconsider their decision,” she averred.

Running the gauntlet Decesare said suspending the NPTE was tantamount to banning the deployment of Filipino physical therapists in the US as recruitment comes to a screeching halt.

Over 1,300 Filipino PTs were deployed to the US from 2007 to 2009, according to Philippine Labor Department records.

“I have a lot of PTs, almost 80 of them who I recruited in 2004. Last month, immigration (US Citizenship & Immigration Services) was only processing applications for August 2003. The good news is that just in the past weeks, they jumped nine months and are now processing July 2004,” she disclosed.

“But look, we’re now 2010. For those who filed in 2004 onwards, they will have to wait another six years if the Obama administration doesn’t do immigration reforms.”

Decesare, a nurse by profession, established Professional Healthcare Resources in 1994. The company now employs over 800 nurses, PTs and occupational therapists in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia.

Finding a US employer is just the start of a long, arduous process, she explained.

Filipino PTs have to take an English proficiency exam and fulfill other requirements before they can take the Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy (FCCPT) exams.

If they pass, they wait. They can enter the US either with an H-1B or EB-3 visa.

The visa allocation for the Philippines is always oversubscribed which leads to the long queue to work in the US.

Most PTs are willing to wait, Decesare said, intimating that a well-trained, experienced PT can earn as much $100,000 a year in the US.

“Capturing” unused visas for the use of countries like the Philippines is a politically volatile subject, she explained.

She revealed how the US Congress snuck in a rider that realigned 50,000 visas to several countries, including the Philippines, in a 2006 bill to aid victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami.

She said Filipino nurses, PTs and other “in-demand” professionals gobbled up visas intended to last six months in a matter of weeks.

Thus, the backlog grew again. The PTs had to wait upto six years before they can apply for a visitor’s visa at the US Embassy in Manila so they can take the NPTE that is administered only in the US.

Some are turned away, ending their dream of working in America.

Risks and opportunities Those who successfully ran this gauntlet now face an uncertain future. Most visitor’s visa expire in six months. Unable to take the licensure test, Filipino PTs must make a difficult decision.

Many had to borrow money to travel to the US. They could go home to a mountain of debt or they could press their luck, risking arrest and deportation for overstaying, and wait for an opportunity to take the licensure tests when it resumes in late 2011, as promised by the FSBPT.

Decesare said this latest cheating scandal reminds her of the nursing exams controversy in 2006.

A feared ban in the deployment of Filipino nurses to the US was staved off thanks to concerted efforts by government and NGOs like the Philippine Nursing Association (its US chapter is one of the biggest Fil-Am organizations in America).

It led to stringent reforms that not only helped raise test standards and safeguards, but also improved facilities for assessing the eligibility of Filipino nurses.

A year after the nursing controversy erupted, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) chose Manila as one of the sites to administer the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for US-bound nurses.

PT credentialing examinations used to be administered in Guam and Saipan.

Decesare expressed the hope that the crisis clouding Filipino PTs would also lead to positive change.

She noted how the nursing field appeared to be more advanced in the credentialing and licensing of foreign-graduate healthcare professionals in the US.

She revealed how the NCSBN, for instance, applies different sets of test questions which they amend and rotate periodically, a practice the FSBPT could have used to neutralize the “sharing of recalled questions”.

Decesare said the PT ban will directly affect the delivery of health care services for elderly Americans.

“You will see in the statistics that a lot of our senior patients are fall risks because they lose their coordination and they fall easily. That job comes under the realm of PTs, to help them strengthen their legs and do exercises to prevent falls,” she said.

“I just came from a homecare conference in Chicago over the weekend and that (shortage of PTs) was a major concern for us because if we can not supply the PTs needed by patients, we can not open the case. The elderly don’t get the care they need. The longer you wait in the hospital, not getting the PT treatment only makes it worse for them,” she warned.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


America’s growing crackdown against unwanted immigrants is prone to abuse, activists say, and the deeper it goes, so will the incidence of injustice.

A forum on racial profiling held at the Dar Al Hijra Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia over the weekend revealed the raging battles between pro- and anti-immigrant groups in America.

Lawyers and activists speaking at the forum say the crackdown is well underway despite the more publicized legal contest in Arizona, and warn it is starting to overwhelm the police, swamp prisons, undermine human rights and deepen America’s already palpable racial divide.

Among those caught in the middle are millions of Filipinos in America, who because of the very nature of racial profiling, could be targeted. Some reports suggest one in every four Filipino in America is undocumented.

Arizona just tip of the iceberg. Much of the attention has been focused on Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB1070, which takes effect at the end of the month.

However, the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has already been enforcing “Secure Communities” in 20 states, mostly those sharing or in proximity to the border with Mexico.

“Secure Communities” allows state and local law enforcers to automatically search a person’s criminal and immigration history in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) databases.

Sold to the public as a “technology tool” to help ICE, immigration lawyers say “Secure Communities” has actually become a weapon for the police.

It gives legal cover for police to jail any suspect for 48 hours through the issuance of so-called “detainer” orders even if no charges are filed but who the police may believe to be undocumented.

“Secure Communities” was intended to ferret out undesirable aliens – illegal immigrants as well as legal residents wanted or previously arrested for serious crimes (e.g., murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, etc.) – so they can be deported.

Out of the 825,000 people subjected to “Secure Communities”, over 100,000 turned up positive in the DHS and FBI databases.

Of this number, only 9% were wanted for serious crimes; 5% turned out to be US citizens; and 86% were wanted for incidents of domestic violence, drunk driving and misdemeanor offenses.

At the forum, lawyers warned that “Secure Communities” exacerbates profiling – the police technique of identifying suspects according to race, gender, age or religious affiliation.

Opening floodgate for abuse. Largely because it has evaded the public eye, lawyer Jorge Figueredo said “Secure Communities” is prone to abuse, especially the use of “detainers” that could victimize US citizens as well.

“Sheriffs and the police don’t know the rule,” he averred.

Loudoun County, Virginia, jails bill the government $95 for each day ICE fails to pick up a suspect 48 hours after he is held on a “detainer”. This creates a situation, Figueredo noted, where jails profit by keeping someone locked up longer.

ICE spent over $1.4 billion last year for “Secure Communities”.

Virginia is building the biggest immigrant detention center in Prince Edward County. It is a privately-run jail. When completed, it would have cost $21 million and can hold up to a thousand prisoners snagged under “Secure Communities”.

Lawyer Arnedo Valera, executive director of the Virginia-based Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), recited a litany of cases involving mostly Filipinos victimized by racial profiling.

Profiling, he stressed, “Is unconstitutional because it violates the 14th amendment (which sets equal protection to all people) of the US Constitution”.

“When you’re a Muslim, you’re a terrorist. When you’re Latino, you’re an illegal immigrant,” lawyer Ofelia Calderon summarized the most prevalent type of racial profiling.

She wryly added, “the Constitution does not always count in immigration court.”

Figueredo said “Secure Communities” could actually make America less safe, more unsecure.

A white resident of nearby Alexandria County related how someone in her neighborhood was stabbed recently, and the culprit jumped aboard a taxi to escape. The cab was driven by a man who turned out to be an illegal immigrant, but whose testimony was pivotal to solving the crime.

She expressed the fear that as the immigrant crackdown grows, that same cab driver may now be afraid to talk with the police.

Broken system spawns grassroots legislative, legal battles. Arizona’s SB 1070 requires police to check the immigration status of everyone they accost. Five states, including Virginia, are trying to enact identical measures.

Arizona enacted SB 1070 ostensibly in response to mounting crimes, largely blamed on undocumented Hispanics, although independent data shows the number of crimes has actually been falling there for the last four years.

Immigrant rights groups assail the law as discriminatory, possibly providing the biggest boost yet to racial profiling.

The US Department of Justice is challenging it in court, and several groups have also sued to prevent it from being implemented.

Separate American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) studies in Arizona, New York and Los Angeles showed law enforcers stopped and searched a disproportionately higher number of African Americans and Hispanics than whites, even when data showed whites were more likely to be carrying contraband or weapons.

The National Conference of State Legislatures revealed the number of immigration-related laws enacted by states surged from 32 in 2005 to over 300 last year. Over a thousand similar bills and resolutions have been filed since the start of the year.

There is a veritable tug-of-war raging between pro- and anti-immigrant advocates across the nation.

The city of San Francisco tried to opt-out of California’s memorandum of agreement with ICE to enforce “Secure Communities” but was blocked by the state’s attorney general.

Immigrant rights groups are optimistic they can convince the Arlington City council in Virginia to also opt-out of “Secure Communities”.

Congressman John Conyers (14th District, Michigan) filed earlier this year HR 5748 that bans the use of profiling, sets the right of action for profiling victims and mandates the US Attorney General to report discriminatory policing practices by federal, state and local law enforcers.

Until the US Congress can enact a nationwide immigration reform law, advocates warn abuses against the nation’s immigrant community will only worsen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The flurry of diplomatic activity in the region will bring next week the highest US official yet to meet with the Aquino administration.

And he won't be your typical Washington functionary.

William Burns is US Undersecretary for Political Affairs.

He was Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, and reports in Washington DC suggest he played a big role in the recent “spy swap” between the US and Russia.

He is scheduled to arrive for a two-day visit to Manila starting Tuesday.

“He will consult with officials of the new Aquino administration and discuss ways to advance our cooperation with an important ally,” Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley explained in a briefing today.

He is considered a key operative of American foreign policy.

Aside from his alleged role in the spy swap episode, he was also involved in efforts to pressure Iran to abandon its plan to build a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Burns was formerly Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

Diplomatic sources say his visit to Manila will be part of a “feeling out” process with the country’s new circle of leaders.

This, they say, is a normal step for establishing personal relations with the three-week old Aquino administration.

Nonetheless, they say it's significant that such a ranking US official was calling on Malacanang so early in the new administration.

The Philippines and Thailand are the only US treaty allies in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Burns is expected to reiterate President Obama’s invitation for President Aquino to visit Washington DC.

Mr. Burns’ presence in the region coincides with a series of events aimed at reaffirming US commitment to Asian security.

A rarity, State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be together in a foreign capital to attend rites for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War in Seoul next week.

Filipino troops, including a young army lieutenant who would later become Philippine president, Fidel Ramos, fought in that war as part of a US-led United Nations coalition.

Secretaries Clinton’s and Gates’ presence is calculated to deliver a firm message of US support for South Korea, which recently lost 46 sailors in a torpedo attack blamed on North Korea.

They will meet with top South Korean diplomatic and defense officials.

The US and South Korea plan to hold war games on the Korean Peninsula despite protests from both North Korea and China.

Secretary Clinton will later fly to Vietnam to attend a post-ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Mr. Burns will be simultaneously travelling to Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and finally, the Philippines.

Monday, July 12, 2010


The million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT) paid tribute to the courage of Filipino teachers in Louisiana who braved possible reprisals to expose the exploitation and abuses allegedly committed by a California-based recruiter.

The Washington DC-based teacher’s union bestowed in Filipino mentors with the President’s International Democracy Award, established in 2008 to highlight the continuing struggle for human rights around the world.

Maria Angala, an officer of the AFT-affiliated teachers union in Washington DC, said the Democracy Award is fruit of the unity and common purpose demonstrated by Filipino teachers in America.

The award was received by Ingrid Jomento-Cruz, founding president of the Filipino Educators Federation of Louisiana (FEFL).

“We selected your organization for your perseverance in fighting against the abusive treatment of placement agencies, dedication to promote the rights and welfare of all educators and migrants, and commitment to the democratic and legal system,” the AFT citation read.

The award was given at the AFT national convention held in Seattle, Washington over the weekend.

Hundreds of Filipino teachers in various Louisiana public schools rose in protest over abuses allegedly committed by the Los Angeles-based Universal Placement International (UPI) and its Philippine counterpart, PARS International.

The recruitment agencies were found by a Louisiana labor court to have violated various statutes, including overcharging fees and operating without a state permit.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission ordered UPI to return $1.8 million in collected from the Filipino mentors.

The plight of Filipino teachers in Louisiana was first reported by ABS-CBN The Filipino Channel’s Balitang America newscast last year.

Jomento-Cruz said the AFT helped them rediscover the Filipino’s Bayanihan spirit.

The AFT, taking the cudgels for the Filipino mentors, provided the lawyers to pursue their quest for justice in American courts.

“It is most impressively displayed in the old tradition of neighbors helping a relocating family by getting enough volunteers to literally carry the house on their shoulders and moving it to its new location. And believe it or not, that act is done with happy, festive and unexpecting disposition,” she told the audience of more than 3,000 labor unionists and guests from all over the world.

“We can clearly see then that these heroes in our community collectively work and sacrifice for each other and be heroes to one another. Bayanihan is all but one with the spirit of unionism,” Jomento-Cruz declared.

Filipino teachers were represented in the convention by Angala (Washington DC), Aileen Mercado (Baltimore), and Jomento-Cruz and Mairi Nunag (Louisiana).

Guests also included Annie Geron, Secretary General of the Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) and Ian Seruelo, US liaison officer of the Partido ng Manggagawa.

A documentary about Filipino teachers in Louisiana was also shown during the convention.

The FEFL was born out of the mentors’ experience there and now aims to combat the victimization of Filipino teachers and other migrant workers against trafficking, recruitment abuses and unfair labor practices.


An apparent spat with one of the Philippine’s honorary consuls cast a pall over an otherwise auspicious start for the resurrected Philippine Chancery in Washington DC.

Droves of Filipinos from as far away as Florida, Mississippi and the Carolinas were the first customers of the new consular offices on the ground floor of the historic edifice that served as the symbolic Philippine capital during World War II, and threatened with demolition after a fire struck in 2008 and it was labeled an eyesore and safety hazard along DC’s pricey “Embassy Row”.

It housed the Philippine Embassy until the late 90s when then President Fidel Ramos ordered the construction of the new embassy building just across the street.

From here consular officials started receiving and processing applications for the new electronic and machine-readable passports (ePassport and MRPs) – and apparently triggered a misunderstanding with an honorary consul in Florida.

The San Francisco and Los Angeles consulates-general launched the ePassport project last May; Washington DC started last June 21, and those in New York and Chicago on July 1.

Angelo Macatangay is the Philippine honorary consul in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

There are three honorary consuls in the US – in Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; and Ft. Lauderdale, explained Washington DC Consul General Domingo “Ding” Nolasco.

Macatangay was allowed to accept passport applications for elderly Filipinos in Ft. Lauderdale, to spare them the rigors of having to travel to DC. But according to Nolasco, he was soon reaching out to Pinoys outside the city.

Macatangay notorized the documents and mailed the forms to DC. He allegedly charged $20 for photos to be used in the old manual passports.

With the advent of ePassport, Ambassador Willy Gaa, sent out a memorandum to all consular posts, including the one in Ft. Lauderdale, to stop accepting papers for the old manual passports but Macatangay was apparently slow to comply.

The DC consulate had to return about a hundred applications for the old passports from Ft. Lauderdale.

This triggered a howl of protest from Florida residents, who were told they now had to travel to Washington DC without apparently being told why.

Nolasco has taken the brunt, to the extent of rumors spreading he is involved in labor recruitment activities, which for a consular official, tantamount to corruption.

“The allegations are false and malicious,” he stressed, blaming Macatangay for the “demolition job”.

“I and the Embassy’s consular staff are just following directives from Manila to implement the electronic passport project in the US that require applicants to appear personally at the Embassy or regular consulates so we can take their photo image and biometrics through the data capture machines provided us by the DFA,” he explained.

Nolasco said there are an average five “capturing machines” in each of the consulates-general (San Francisco has the most number with 8). The honorary consulates have none.

A server sends the encrypted “captured data” directly to Manila.

Unlike the old manual passports that can be prepared in the consulates-general, the ePassport can only be produced by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) printing facility in Quezon City. It takes about three weeks for the applicant to get his ePassport.

Nolasco said the repair of the Philippine Chancery was very timely.

He explained implementing the ePassport and MRP is an international commitment of the Philippines. “We have no choice so the least we can do is ensure their visit to the consulate is a little more comfortable,” he averred.

The new consular section is relatively more spacious than the old one, and at least had a roof because the queue usually stretched to the open ground outside the old consular office which at the height of summer or the dead of winter, was not an especially welcome prospect.

And for out-of-towners, being inside the Chancery would be so typically Washington DC, where almost every other building has a rich reminder of the past.

Friday, July 9, 2010


The Philippines is expending a lot of political capital in Washington DC to help fund its internal wars.

The combined effects of the US recession, greater focus on human rights and reduced threat from the Abu Sayyaf, among others, appear to have shifted the Obama administration’s priorities in the Philippines.

In fact, the State Department has, for years, tried to trim military aid to the Philippines.

Total aid to the Philippines is expected to grow from about $115 million in 2008 to over $124 million this year, according to congressional records.

But military aid, primarily in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) has been steadily falling from $164 million in 2005 to $30 million last year to a proposed $15 million for the coming fiscal year.

Actually, the Philippine military could have gotten less than half of what it did last year were it not for the intervention of key US allies on Capitol Hill, including Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye who chairs the powerful appropriations committee.

Thanks to intense lobbying, and with the help of groups like Covington & Burling, military aid was kept at 2008 levels and the $2 million conditional aid – to encourage the Arroyo administration to address the problem of unsolved political killings – was excluded from the amount.

The State Department wants to use more of the aid for development assistance, health and education improvements, and food security.

They proposed, for instance, to spend almost $13 million for basic education, $17.5 million for family planning and reproductive health assistance, $5 million for developing clean energy, etc.

Funds for development assistance are expected to grow from about $28 million in 2008 to over $70 million this year, based on records.

Despite a protracted war with the New People’s Army and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines has historically had one of the lowest defense spending in the region.

A 2009 study by the Journal of Sustainable Development showed Philippine military expenditure as a percentage of GDP dropped from 1.4 % in 1995 to 0.9 % in 2005. On the other hand, Indonesian military spending was 1.2 % of GDP in 2005, Singapore’s 4.7 % and Malaysia, 2.4 %.

That has forced the Armed Forces of the Philippines to rely on US military assistance. When US bases were still operating in the country, the US paid for up to 80 % of the AFP’s procurement, operations and maintenance expenses.

The Philippines has spent billions to wage its wars and after over 40 years of bloody conflict, it is perhaps time to re-ask the question – have we been any better off or more secure from it?

The military claims they have reduced the number of NPAs from a peak of 25,000 in the 1980s to about 5,000 scattered in 60 guerilla fronts across the country today.

The former AFP chief’s assurance that they’d eradicate the NPAs before former President Arroyo steps down last month was typical of the false bravado that has characterized the succession of military counter-insurgency campaigns.

Soldiers have done their worst against the “enemy” – be they NPAs, MILFs or ASGs and sadly, they’re still around.

As President Aquino charts his own course to resolving these overdrawn, dragged out conflicts, he should see that the stalemate can only be broken with a new brand of socio-economic and political blitzkrieg.

Perhaps he can draw inspiration from his own father’s feats at the height of the Huk threat.

As the US Congress deliberates on future assistance for the Philippines, perhaps it’s time to stop asking for more money for fighting, and instead insist on more money for building.

The man the people chose to bring change could perhaps use a little of that to pursue a new solution in lieu of the tired, old strategy that hasn’t worked for nearly half a century.

It's time for a little "smart power". It's clean, renewable and we don't have to keep asking America to get more of it.


A Maryland judge has sided with one of three Filipina nurses fired from a Baltimore hospital last April for speaking Tagalog.

Administrative Judge Stuart Breslow, in a June 30 ruling, said Filipina nurse Corina Yap should receive unemployment benefits.

Filipina nurses Yap, Anna Rosales and Hachelle Natano, and Fil-Am hospital employee Jazziel Granada were dismissed by Bon Secours Hospital for allegedly violating a rule requiring them to speak only in English while on duty at the Emergency Room.

State authorities had initially disqualified her from the benefits because the hospital said Yap was fired for grave misconduct.

But Judge Breslow disagreed.

“Her actions were not intended to deliberately violate the directive, but were merely an inadvertent action on her part to greet and talk to a fellow employee in their native tongue,” he declared.

“At no time during these encounters did any discussion about a patient take place and no patient was placed at risk as a result of her actions,” the judge stressed.

Lawyer Arnedo Valera, counsel for the dismissed hospital workers, said the administrative court ruling bolstered their arguments that the Filipinas were unfairly treated and deprived of due process.

While they do not question the hospital’s English-only rule, Valera alleges the Filipinas were singled out because of their country of origin.

He added that the hospital’s English-only rule was so broad and lacking in clear guidelines that made it nearly unenforceable. He asked, for instance, whether uttering a single non-English word like the name of a foreign food or a word of greeting was sufficient to fire a hospital worker.

“Based on that single page paper they signed, there is simply no way to determine what constitutes a dismissable offense,” he opined.

Valera noted the hospital could not cite specific instances where or when the alleged violations took place.

The nurses contend they spoke Tagalog only at the nurses’ station during break time and never in front of a patient.

Only Yap filed the appeal to get the benefits before the Maryland Department of Labor because her job at Bon Secours Hospital was her main source of income.

“The Employer has a right to expect that its employees will follow its policies and directives,” Judge Breslow said.

“While failure to abide by the directive may be considered misconduct, the one instance where the Claimant discussed a patient with another employee in her native language and the other incidents of inadvertently greeting an employee in her native language are not found to be a deliberate and willful disregard of standards that the Employer had the right to expect,” he concluded.

Valera said they plan to introduce the Maryland administrative court’s ruling as additional evidence in the discrimination complaint they filed last month before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The nurses are also mulling a separate civil suit for damages against Bon Secours Hospital.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Our Auntie Aida was like a mother to us. She took care of us siblings when our parents (the time my Dad was an editor of the defunct Manila Chronicle and later as magazine publisher that often took him outside the country) were away, and even when they were not.

We got the sad news this morning. She passed away in her nipa hut in Iloilo yesterday.

She never married. But she had many children – her nephews and nieces, who I’m sure, are just as stricken with grief as I am.

I think every family has an uncle or aunt like her. They dote on their nephews and nieces, making sure the kids tow the parents’ line, provide a good thrashing when we don’t, and offer an ear and a hug when we need them.

They give a steady assurance to their brothers and sisters who have families of their own, letting them know there’s always going to be someone to look after their children as if they were her own.

Auntie Aida worked at the Post Office until she retired. As I grew older and began dealing with other “public servants”, the image of her working kept my hope alive that not everyone in government are scoundrels.

She had a tremendous work ethic, always dishing eight hours’ worth, sometimes more, rain or shine, through fire and floods, five days a week. I grew up thinking this was how everyone was supposed to work.

Like most government retirees, she died penniless.

My cousins bought her a small nipa hut that baked in the summer and leaked during the monsoon.

Her meager pension was barely enough to buy medicines after she suffered a stroke a few years back.

We send help whenever we can. Even when her needs were direst, she never asked for it.

I was saddened the stroke had slurred her speech, because one thing that I remember most about our Auntie Aida was her rapier-sharp tongue.

She needled an uncle-in-law about his incessant smoking and drinking, and we would get a big laugh watching the tit-for-tat between the two whenever we vacationed in Iloilo.

We had no doubt our Auntie Aida loved her “favorite bayaw” (probably because that uncle was her only one).

Our uncle passed away about three months ago. It tickles me now knowing, they’ll be taking their humorous duels to eternity. I can almost see my uncle’s face.

It wasn’t fun to be on the receiving end of Auntie Aida’s “sermons”. For all her attributes, subtlety was never one of them.

We knew better than to fall into an argument with her, so as we siblings grew older, we learned to surrender quickly, and vow never to repeat the wrong, real or imagined. She made sure we behaved which I thought was silly because we then already adults.

I don’t think she ever told me this directly, but I remember overhearing relatives saying I was her favorite.

It wasn’t because I was exceptionally obedient or good-looking. I think it was a family thing, because I was the eldest son of their eldest brother. But even if I wasn't, I sure felt that way.

In the middle of sleep last night, the wooden back-scratcher that I kept atop the bed’s head-board, fell on my head for no reason. It’s never fallen that way before. It felt like a gentle tap on my forehead. I grumbled and quickly fell asleep again.

This morning, I’d like to think that Auntie Aida just wanted to make sure I knew she didn’t go without saying goodbye.

Monday, July 5, 2010


The United States turned 234 over the weekend, and Pinoys from Metro DC, New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined the celebrations where it all started, in historic Philadelphia.

It was the first time Fil-Ams joined the Independence Day parade which kicked off along Chestnut Street, passing in front of Independence Hall – traditionally the birthplace of the United States.

It was here that the US Constitution was debated, drafted and signed. The Liberty Bell used to hang from its pinnacle.

Many minority American groups also joined the parade for the first time.

We recognized many of them as fixtures in past Independence Day parades in Washington DC.

Organizers in Philadelphia evidently wanted to highlight America’s rich diversity.

A Fil-Am doorman in one of the hotels near Independence Hall beamed with pride at seeing kababayans at the parade.

“I’ve been working here for eight years but this is the first time I’ve seen Filipino Americans in the parade. I wish they will do it every year,” he said.

Many American political traditions began here. The adjacent two-storey Congress Hall institutionalized a bicameral legislature – the upper house (so called because it occupied the 2nd floor) gave equal power to all the states regardless of size, and the lower house which gave proportional representation according to size.

The practice of calling the House of Representatives the lower house and the Senate, the upper house, has been carried through the centuries and in many countries, including the Philippine Congress.

Philadelphia perhaps rivals only Washington DC in terms of historical significance.

The Liberty Bell was used to call the Pennsylvania Assembly to meetings.

Some accounts say the bell pealed to summon the people to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence. But historians say by the 1770s, the tower had been rotting and some felt ringing the bell might cause it to topple. Nonetheless, the revolutionaries believed it was important enough to be hauled away from Philadelphia when the British invaded the city.

It has become a symbol of the great struggles that have rippled through America – from the abolition of slavery to the fight for suffrage to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement.

The Liberty Bell has now also become a rallying symbol for immigrants.

President Obama last week made his strongest pitch yet for immigration reforms.

“We are heartened by President Obama’s strong statement to keep his promise to make immigration reform a reality this year,” said NsFFAA (National Federation of Filipino American Association) president Greg Macabenta.

Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) executive director Arnedo Valera said Mr. Obama’s speech was “very timely for the celebration of American Independence Day. A comprehensive immigration reform now is good for the economy and enriches the cultural heritage of America.”

“Filipinos have the longest waiting time for petitions to be approved,” Macabenta said, “It’s imperative that we use our voices and our votes to urge our national leaders to act boldly and decisively now.”

Just as the Liberty Bell has symbolically called the collective attention of the nation, NaFFAA vice chair Rozita Lee stressed, “We must remind America that we are a nation of immigrants regardless of where we came from or how we came here, our shared values strengthen America’s global standing as a beacon of hope around the world.”

Valera warned, “the broken immigration system only foments racial bias and promoted discriminatory practices against various ethnic groups.”

The Fil-Am participants, under the auspices of the MHC, marched through the narrow, ballast stone-paved streets of historic Philadelphia. Some Philly Fil-Ams shouted “Mabuhay” as they passed.

The US Navy’s battleship New Jersey which saw action from World War II all the way to the liberation of Kuwait, and guided-missile destroyer Buckley were berthed on opposite banks of the Delaware River to help celebrate America’s birthday.

A lot of young Filipinos have served on those warships.

Click here for video of the Independence Day parade


A cheesesteak could be a mere speck in the infinite food universe, so where do we begin the search for the best in the place where it all began?

It all started in Philadelphia – hence, the moniker Philadelphia or Philly cheesesteak.

The cheesesteak even has its own history. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania says it was “developed” in the early 1930s “by combining frizzled beef, onions and cheese in a small loaf of bread.”

Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri are often credited as the creators of the cheesesteak.

Pat opened his own restaurant near the Italian Market (which we discovered, had such a remarkable resemblance to our own Divisoria) – Pat’s King of Steaks, where we decided to focus our search for the “best” cheesesteak.

Pat’s has a storied rivalry with Geno’s Steak, which just happens to sit across the street at the intersection of 9th St. and Passyunk Avenue.

Over time, many variations have emerged. Choice of rib-eye or top round; American cheese, Provolone or Chiz Whiz, to spread mayonnaise or not, and perhaps the most controversial – to add ketchup or not.

To find the best-tasting food, a sage once declared, just follow the longest queue.

But how do you decide when the lines are equally long, spilling into the narrow street where passing cars, perhaps out of deference to culinary history, often drive to a crawl, sparing patrons the hazards of being run-over.

So which has the best cheesesteak?

In the birthplace of cheesesteak, the choices are too many. Time was short and alas, the appetite was willing but the stomach is full.