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Filipino Americans

This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Filipino American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

The Philippines and the U.S.: An Enduring Connection

The Filipino American population first started booming after the Philippines became a territory of the United States in 1898. They arrived as laborers, mostly in agriculture and domestic service, and as students. By 1930, the Filipino American population numbered 45,026. Since 1970, the Filipino population has grown nearly seven times, from 336,731 to 2,364,815, making up almost one percent of the national population. This includes hapas of part-Filipino ancestry, who make up 22 percent of the Filipino American population -- the third-highest rate among major APA groups (behind Native Hawaiians and Japanese).

The integration of the Philippines by the U.S. into the world market as an export economy resulted in the loss of small family-owned farms. Amid promises of monetary success, young displaced male Filipinos with minimal educations and bleak economic futures readily chose to immigrate to the United States -- especially since their status as American nationals after the Spanish- American War made it easy to do so. The first wave of Filipinos to enter and remain in significant numbers immigrated to Hawaii from 1906 to 1935, working in sugar and pineapple plantations and later the farms of California as migrant laborers.

Rice terraces in Banaue, Philippines © Tim Graham & Getty Images

However, beginning in the 1920s and exploding by the 1930s, sentiment against Filipinos took a decidedly hostile turn. Legislative testimony in California documented negative stereotypes that focused on the sexual prowess of Filipino males. Initially, Filipinos had not been barred from marrying white women. However, concerns of racial purity and mixed- race offspring prompted lawmakers to amend anti-miscegenation laws to include Filipinos.

The Tydings-McDuffy Act of 1935 limited immigration from the Philippines by granting it independence, which reclassified Filipinos as aliens, and then limiting their immigration to 50 individuals per year. At the start of World War II, thousands of Philippine-born Filipinos were recruited to serve in the military, especially the Navy, where they took jobs mostly as stewards and cooks. This population comprises the second wave of immigration and an important segment of the Filipino population in the United States today.

After the 1965 Immigration Act, Filipinos began arriving in the U.S. for education, work, and to escape the repressive political regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. This resulted in a significant brain drain of highly- educated Filipinos. Unlike earlier immigrants who were largely farm workers and military personnel, the new Filipino immigrants were professionals, many in the medical fields. Within a few years, less than a tenth of the Filipino immigrants were laborers; two-thirds were professional and technical workers.

Demographic Charcteristics Today

Today, Filipinos are dispersed throughout the nation, but most still live in California and Hawaii, a legacy of the laborers who worked the fields and canneries of the West Coast in the early 1900s and created communities and social networks there. In 2000, seven of the ten cities with the largest Filipino populations were in California. Most grew out of social networks formed by military relationships between the Philippines and the U.S.

U.S. military bases in the Philippines heavily recruited Filipinos for enlisted positions and civilian jobs. Many enlisted Filipinos were sent to bases in the U.S., and then stayed. San Diego's Filipino community is a direct outgrowth of the Naval base there. More recently, economic opportunities have lured Filipinos to states like Nevada. In cities like Reno and Las Vegas, Filipinos occupy jobs within the tourism industry as employees in hotels, shops and restaurants, and in the health care industry, primarily as nurses.

Filipino American nurse © Jon Feingersh & Getty Images

These days, more than six in ten Filipino immigrants are women, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Three major factors explain why female immigration is on the rise: preference and non-preference quotas; globalization of the economy has created a feminization of labor; and export-led growth strategy has weakened the Philippine's domestic market economy.

In 1980, the Philippines replaced China and Japan as the Asian country sending the largest number of immigrants to the United States. By the 1990s, the Philippines sent more immigrants than any country except Mexico. Among illegal immigrants in the U.S., those from the Philippines rank sixth. The portion of the Filipino American population that is foreign-born is declining: from 69 percent in 1990 to 50 percent between 1998 and 2000 (29 percent were second generation and 21 percent were third generation or later).

In 1986, the passage of the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments enacted stiff penalties for marriage fraud. The 1990 Immigration Act limited the number of family-sponsored preference visas, which continue to decline each year. Instead, employment-based preferences -- mostly temporary -- are on the rise and have become the foremost means of entry for Filipinos to the United States.

More recently, the Absconder Apprehension Initiative was developed as part of the U.S. Department of Justice's anti-terrorist campaign. As a result, record high numbers of Filipinos are being deported. The Philippines were among those singled out as "al Qaeda active nations" because of Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Basilan Island, despite the fact that it is only one of 7,100 islands in the Philippines.

Although Philippine President Arroyo was among the very first heads of state to declare support for the anti-terrorist war declared by the Bush administration, no protections have been offered to prevent innocent Filipinos from being victims of racial profiling, interrogation, and selective deportation. The upsurge in deportations may partly explain the decrease in foreign-born Filipinos from 1998 to the present. Together, these immigration policies have reversed the tides of opportunity and have made it more difficult for illegal and legal immigrants to move up the ladder of social mobility.

Facing External Challenges and Internal Diversity

For Filipino Americans already in the U.S., their economic mobility continues to be hampered by the global restructuring of the economy. In the last thirty years, many American cities have recruited Filipino nurses to meet shortages in their hospitals. Recently, Filipino school teachers are also in demand, although in most cases, they must pay their own way to America and fork over application and processing fees; teacher-strapped school districts are enjoying a free lunch in this regard. As a result, many Filipinos occupy low- wage and middle-wage sector jobs that offer very little opportunity to advance up a higher-paying career ladder.

Filipino American couple © Barry Austin & Getty Images

As another example of continuing inequality toward Filipino Ameicans, only recently have Filipino veterans have been able to secure full veterans benefits for their service during World War II. Also, in the wake of 9/11, hundreds of Filipino airport screeners have been laid off and not rehired for better paid federal screener jobs, despite decades of experience, because they were not U.S. citizens.

Filipinos continue to be one of the largest APA groups due to immigration and increased childbearing. Filipino immigration has decreased during the past decade, and there is no telling whether it will once again be on the rise. But the continuing nurse and teacher shortage will mean significant streams of low-/semi-skilled and skilled workers from the Philippines will continue to emigrate.

Segments of the Filipino American population are succeeding. An increasing majority of Filipinos is moving to the suburbs, which is one marker of economic success. The relatively young and middle-aged population and increasing educational attainment levels also indicates that second and third generation Filipino Americans will possess greater employment and earnings opportunities than their parents. Filipino Americans remain a population that is diverse on many levels that must be seen in relation to, not in isolation of, each other.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by Melany Dela Cruz, Pauline Agbayani-Siewart, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Dela Cruz, Melany and Pauline Agbayani-Siewart. 2003. "Filipino Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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