Monday, February 20, 2012


Just a few years ago, the Philippines could barely win a Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, hearings were held to denounce human rights abuses, the government reeling from constant brickbats from Washington DC. But the winds have apparently shifted, prompting one ranking State Department official to describe a “Renaissance” in US-Philippine relations.

Various observers noted the “love-hate” relationship between the Philippines and United States. If words coming out of Capitol Hill and White House are any indication, that pendulum has swung once more. Where criticisms of how the Philippines was being run used to occupy the first few paragraphs, now they are somewhere near the last.

At a recent hearing of a House foreign affairs sub-committee on the state of the US-PH alliance, we asked Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. if it didn’t look too much like a “Philippine love-fest”.

No, he replied. “They also pointed out the challenges we face, we need to do more in terms of the fight against corruption and the other issues raised by the United States although they recognized we’ve made tremendous progress,” Cuisia said.

Okay, but it’s a far cry from the hearings that his predecessor had to endure on Capitol Hill. So what’s changed?

Firstly, the US government seems to have enormous trust and confidence in President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. That was obvious in the prolific praise of Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell that echoed the public declarations of admiration from his boss, Secretary Hillary Clinton and even from many lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

President Aquino, progeny of his parents’ political legacy that many Americans hold with great respect has a lot more riding on his shoulder than the undying affections of radio jock Grace Lee. His campaign against corruption has fired the imagination of people in Washington who perhaps don’t understand just how rooted and pernicious that problem is.

Secondly, American policy-makers are recognizing once more the geostrategic importance of its one-time colony in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the face of a resurgent and at times, insurgent China.

China is rapidly becoming America’s chief competitor, in the economic arena and now militarily as well. There is deep distrust in Washington DC about China’s military expansion – the Pentagon has warned that the strategy and weapons they are building seem to be designed to challenge the US particularly for control and domination of the Asia-Pacific region – a fear fueled in part by China’s secrecy.

Thirdly, the growing Filipino American population in America is slowly emerging as a potent political bloc that politicians cannot ignore. They are among the fastest growing segment of the Asian American population and while some inherent socio-cultural weaknesses impede their development as a influential yet distinct bloc, it’s only a matter of time before Fil-Ams reach a critical mass in US politics.

And lastly, there is genuine affection between Filipinos and Americans. Time and again, we’ve heard the phrase from the corridors of power in DC about how America will not find a better friend than the Philippines. Decades of people-to-people ties coupled with inter-marriages have created a peculiar bond of friendship that in many instances are deeply personal.

All these pose formidable challenges as well as opportunities for both the Philippines and US.

President Aquino should make sure to deliver on his promises. Whether they be in the campaign against corruption or extra-judicial killings or human trafficking, results should move beyond press releases and into tangible measures. For Filipinos that means fewer victims; for critical outsiders like the US, that often means the number of convictions, culprits meted their just due.

And as the US plays its “games” with China, the Philippines should be reminded that America’s first ground war in World War II was fought there. Through decades of neglect and mismanagement, the Philippines is in a vulnerable spot – with or without muscle-flexing neighbors.

There will be enormous pressure as the world’s powers tug against each other to promote their own interests in that corner of Asia. Which begs the question – what and where does Philippine interests lie in this era of shifting political winds?


WASHINGTON D.C. The scheduled 2x2 ministerial meeting in Washington DC was pushed back from March to April to reportedly give Philippine defense officials more time to finish drawing up new plans even as the United States showed eagerness to ramp up its forces there as early as possible.

The US conveyed its readiness to expand military forces in the Philippines during the 2nd Bilateral Strategic Dialogue here last month. The move is part of a shift in America’s security strategy that emphasizes the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

Philippine officials are reportedly pressed to update or come up with new plans to enable the increased US military presence in the country, short of reopening their old bases.

The US closed down its bases in Clark and Subic two decades ago after the Philippine Senate voted to close them down, following the 1986 Constitution that bans permanent foreign military forces.

As longstanding treaty allies, the US and Philippines conducts yearly joint training exercises. The largest of them are the “Balikatan” (translates roughly in the vernacular as “shoulder to shoulder”) and the amphibious Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training or CARAT.

The US plans to rotate as many as 4,000 Marines in the region, including the Philippines according to a report from the Pacific Daily News. Meanwhile, the US Special Operations Command has announced plans to beef up its own forces, including the estimated 600 troops in Mindanao.

The US and Japan are negotiating the future of the Marines’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa that was supposed to be relocated to another part of the province. Okinawans are protesting the presence of US bases and want them moved to other parts of Japan.

An estimated 4,700 Marines from Okinawa are slated to be redeployed to Guam (the total number under a 2006 agreement calls for the withdrawal of 8,000 soldiers). But that would mean beefing up existing facilities in Guam and President Barack Obama reportedly balked after seeing the tab that could reach $21 billion.

The US Department of Defense now plans to rotate as many as 4,000 Marines to Australia, Hawaii and the Philippines, including forward operating bases in Sulu and Zamboanga City, according to various news reports.

The US keeps about 300-600 Special Operations troops in Mindanao to help the Philippine military combat the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Earlier this month, a top terror commander Umbra Jumdail alias Dr. Abu Pula was killed in a US-backed airstrike in Sulu.

Two leaders of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia franchise Jemaa Islamiya, Malaysain Zulfikli bin Hir alias Marwan and Singaporean Abdullah Ali alias Muawiyah were reportedly killed but that has not been confirmed and the Philippine Army cannot produce their bodies.

Meanwhile, Adm. Bill McRaven, the new head of the US Special Operations Command and the man credited with leading the top-secret mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, told the House Armed Services Committee that he would direct more resources to theater special operations commands, citing the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines as an example.

“One of the areas where I intend to put a lot of emphasis is building up the theater special operations commands so they have the entire spectrum of capability that I think they’ll need for the future,” McRaven said.

He noted for instance that Predator drones used for intelligence and surveillance in support of troops on the ground could also be especially useful during natural disasters.

The Philippines welcomes the increased US military presence to counter growing Chinese belligerency in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The islands are claimed in part or in whole by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei.

Congress gave its nod to the transfer of a 2nd Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter, the “Dallas” to the Philippine Navy later this year. The first ship delivered last year was rechristened the “Gregorio del Pilar” and now serves as the Philippine Navy flagship. It helps patrol the Spratly Islands.

At the strategic dialogue, both sides explored the feasibility of expanding both the size and scope of existing joint training exercises, especially “Balikatan”. But the Philippine defense department needs to flesh out many of the ideas and “fill in the blanks” according to one official.

The process is time consuming, officials explained, because anything that is delivered through diplomatic channels has to be run over to Camp Aguinaldo, partly because President Aquino has done away with the security Cabinet cluster in Malacanang.

The US and Philippines have Mutual Defense Treaty and an existing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) regulates the movement and activities of US military forces in the Philippines.

The 2x2 ministerial meeting will gather US State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


A bill unanimously approved by the United States House of Representatives that would cut short the waiting period for Filipinos immigration to the Unites States appears in peril in the Senate.

The House of Representatives passed last month by a 389-15 vote a bill to expand the number of family-based visas for relatives of US residents.

But when New York Charles Schumer, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration, filed a companion measure last Dec. 15, he tacked a provision that would allow up to 10,000 undocumented Irish to be given work permits.

While the House version enjoyed overwhelming support, Schumer’s proposal has drawn immediate push back from both Republican and Democratic colleagues. It was largely seen as an accommodation for the large Irish immigrant community.

HR 3021 or the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act (FHSIA) sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) will increase the family-based visa limit from 7 percent to 15 percent per country.

The State Department allocates only 226,000 family-based visas worldwide every year. Countries with the most visa application backlogs include the Philippines, Mexico, China and India.

For Filipinos, the backlog is worst for the 4th preference (brothers and sisters petitioned by US citizens) where the waiting period currently stands at about 24 years.

If the FHSIA is approved the backlog of family petitions of Filipinos will be reduced by advancing the priority dates, especially for the 1st and 2nd preferences (unmarried sons and daughters of US citizens; and spouses, minor children and unmarried sons and daughters of US permanent residents, respectively).

“The reason for the strong support for this bill is that there is no provision for the increase in visa numbers,” explained California-based lawyer Lou Tancinco. “It simply rearranges the order of the green card application queue and averages the amount of time between green card backlogged countries and non-backlogged countries.”

“This will significantly shorten the wait for the people in the family queues,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that while the bill won't bring significant changes, "we think this is a positive step forward."

But this rare bipartisan unanimity on Capitol Hill could unravel because of opposition to Schumer’s proposal.

His bill would potentially allow 10,500 Irish citizens per year to live and work in the US using a new E-3 non-immigrant visa. If passed, undocumented Irish already in the US may be eligible to apply for the program.

But the provision sounded too much like amnesty for undocumented nationals that are mostly anathema to Republicans. There are reports the GOP may filibuster the measure which dooms chances that the FHSIA could be ready for President Obama’s signature by the summer.

There is allegedly a strong Irish lobby to preserve this in FHSIA. “We are eager to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass this bill at the earliest opportunity,” Schumer stressed.

Schumer has drawn support from Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts who has also become a central player in the FHSIA battle. He is reportedly leading efforts to convince his GOP colleagues not to block the bill.


Congressman Scott Rigell and his wife Teri hosted dinner last week in their handsome home near Capitol Hill for Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. It was one of those evening socials, a staple of the diplomatic and political circuit in the nation’s capital but there was no mistaking the Philippine’s chief envoy in America was hard at work.

Cuisia was joined by a slice of the Fil-Am community in Virginia – Delegate Ron Villanueva and Clerk of Court Pina Cenon, couple Roy and Naomi Estaris who run a large travel agency, Nony Abrajano of NaFFAA, the umbrella of Fil-Am associations in the US. They all had something in common other than being active Fil-Am community leaders – they’re from Virginia Beach that happens to be Rigell’s district.

Cuisia has been mounting a charm offensive on Capitol Hill to push the SAVE Act, a trade bill pending in Congress that would provide duty-free access for US textiles entering the Philippines and Philippine apparel shipped to the US and could be the first trade accord between treaty allies US and the Philippines in over 40 years.

The one-time chief of the Philippine Central Bank is pursuing the SAVE Act as a straight business proposition. He is telling everyone on Capitol Hill and the White House that passing the bill would not only be evidence of the closeness that Manila and Washington DC often proclaim, there was also money to be made for both sides.

On the surface, Cuisia told the Manila Mail after a recent House foreign affairs sub-committee hearing, “it doesn’t look to create as many jobs for the US textile industry. It will, however, generate a lot of exports and the export is what I am emphasizing because it can help reduce the US trade deficit.”

The US had a $609 million trade deficit with the Philippines in 2010, according to statistics from the office of the US Trade Representative.

There are twin bills pending in Congress – Senate 1244 and House Resolution 2387 – that defines the so-called Save Our Industries or SAVE Act. It has gotten bipartisan support but still far short of the critical mass that could push the measure through the legislative mill and onto President Obama’s desk.

At the House sub-committee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade hearing looking into the state of the US-Philippine alliance, panel chairman Congressman Ed Royce of California declared his support for the SAVE Act.

“Many skilled Filipinos deserve a better economy than the one they’ve had to survive in and the United States can help in this regard,” Royce said.

Another California solon, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said that if the US can give China “most favored nation” status and now see it as a strident global competitor they should give the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, the same opportunity.

“Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos lost their jobs,” Royce said, after the global apparel tariff system was lifted 7 years ago, shrinking Philippine garment exports to the US from a peak of $3 billion to about $1 billion today.

“Those jobs have shifted to China. We should give an ally like the Philippines a leg up in competing for international apparel orders,” he stressed.

“I’m very happy that Chairman Royce is one of the supporters and that he would like this (SAVE Act) to push through,” Cuisia told the Manila Mail, “but we need more support from other congressmen and senators.”

“We’re trying to get more of the Republican senators so it becomes a truly bipartisan bill,” he added.

He’s already won over Missouri Senator Roy Blunt who sits in some key committees, including appropriations and commerce; and is the ranking Republican in the Commerce sub-committee on competitiveness, innovation and export promotion. He is also the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Cuisia disclosed he is trying to woo Senator John McCain, a recent Manila visitor, to support the SAVE Act as well.

Without a professional lobby group helping out, Cuisia has been forced to do much of the work himself. Congressman Rigell was, according to a source, the 5th lawmaker he’s been courting since the start of the year.

“The SAVE Act has bipartisan support,” Royce said, “I am hopeful in advancing this to the Ways & Means committee right now; it’s gaining more and more support, more and more traction.”

But it will still be a tough slog for Cuisia and his team at the Philippine Embassy. If the free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama last year are a barometer efforts to win approval of the SAVE Act has barely scratched the surface.

For instance, there’s apparently been some pushback on the loss of revenues for the US. “When they look at the potential revenue loss because of the zero duty for garments entering the US market, they only look at the CBO formula,” he explained, referring to revenue calculations by the Congressional Budget Office.

“They’re not looking at the revenues generated by export and I’ve pointed that out to legislatros that the CBO formula does not look at exports,” he argued.

The Philippines is the US’ 30th biggest export market in 2010. US exported $7.4 billion in goods in 2010, a nearly 30 percent rise over the previous year. But it also bought about $8 billion worth of goods – mostly machineries, garments and coconut oil – from the Philippines, resulting in a deficit.


High school honor roll student Jireh Lee Silva recently topped the preliminary round of the Exodus Spelling Bee competition in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is the daughter of one of hundreds of Filipino teachers who’ve lost or are about to lose their jobs.

“I joined the Spelling Bee on a whim,” she revealed. Jireh (pronounced “Ji-rah”) said she heard about it from one of her classmates and at first didn’t give it much thought.

“I thought I might as well take some risks since it was my senior year,” she added. “I’ve never won money for anything so it felt nice to get something that I know I worked hard for.”

Aside from qualifying for the championship in Atlanta, Georgia this April, Jireh won a $1,000 cash prize. “It felt really good to win,” she gushed. The finals offer a top prize of $25,000 (split $15,000 for the winner and $10,000 for the school).

And work hard she did. “They gave the participants a list of words to study so I looked through that and their definitions and etymology for the foreign words on the list,” she said.

Jireh won the preliminary competition at the Dr. Henry Wise Jr. High School by correctly spelling the word “heliotaxis” that she recognized for its Greek roots.

She was also the 1st girl from the school to make it past the preliminary round.

The 17-year-old teen is the daughter of Nerisa Silva, one of the teachers hit by the Labor Department’s 2-year debarment against the Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS) system.

The order, which forbids recruiting or extending work permits for international teachers, was part of a settlement after the PGCPS was found to have “willfully violated” rules for recruiting foreign mentors under the H-1 visa program.

The settlement also called for refunding over $4 million in fees unlawfully collected from the Filipino teachers on top of a hefty fine. Nearly a thousand Filipinos were hired by the PGCPS from 2005 to 2010.

Since the penalty was imposed in April last year, the number of Filipino teachers has shrunk to about 600 today. Many have successfully found teaching jobs in as far away as New Mexico and Arizona; many others have gone back to the Philippines, frustrated and angry.

The final and biggest batch of teachers – about 500 of them – will lose their jobs in PGCPS in September.
The PGCPS allegedly promised to help them get their “green cards” so they uprooted their families and brought them here, hoping to find their slice of the “American dream”.

That has immensely complicated the condition of these teachers because like Jireh’s parents, their children have absorbed American life so well that a 2nd exodus, this time going home, will deprive them of a future that’s already within grasp.

And the loss will be felt not only by the teachers and their families, but also the community. Jireh is a member of the National Honor Soceity, National Technical Honor Society and the National Art Honor Society.

She volunteers at the Heartland Hospice in Beltsville, a youth leader and nursery assistant at the Gospel Life Church in Bowie and was one of the 2011 Dr. Jose Rizal Youth awardees.

“This whole issue about the Labor Department affected my family negatively,” she explained. “It has affected my plans for the future in a really big way.”

Jireh and a younger sister live with their parents in PG County. She has an older sister in Georgia while the eldest of the siblings is in the Philippines.

“The best schools aren’t exactly cheap, so even if I have this university that I’ve been dreaming of going to since forever, I don’t have the money to pay the $50,000 a semester that they’re charging,” she shared with the Manila Mail.

“I’ve tried looking for scholarships but this is very challenging. One of our class sponsors sent out a 52-page PDF filled with scholarships that we can apply for but I’m eligible only for about four of them because I’m not a permanent resident yet,” Jireh laments.

She dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse one day. She has applied for admission in Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland in Baltimore, St. John’s University, Bowie State University, Bridgewater College and York College.

“I have outstanding grades and my resume is not too shabby so I’m bound to be accepted in some schools. My main problem is money, I can’t exactly pay for them,” she said.

Talking about her recent winnings, Jireh said she was giving part of it as “an offering to God because I know I couldn’t have done it without Him.”

The rest, she added, will be set aside for her college funds.

“It’s really discouraging sometimes but I’m trying to stay optimistic,” she declared. “I just keep hoping that somehow it will work out for me.”