Happy Independence Day: A Story About Becoming American
Note: I've posted this story before. But I think about it every Fourth of July, so I wanted to post it again. I've updated and edited it a bit. I've cross-posted it at The Agitator today.
One hot summer in the early nineties, I was working as a summer extern for Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, a federal judge in Los Angeles. On a late morning in early July he abruptly walked into my office and said without preamble "Get your coat." Somewhat concerned that I was about to be shown the door, I grabbed my blazer and followed him out of chambers into the hallway. I saw he had already assembled his two law clerks and his other summer extern there. Exchanging puzzled glances, we followed him into the art-deco judge's elevator in the old federal courthouse, then into the cavernous judicial parking garage. He piled us into his spotless Cadillac and drove out of the garage without another word.
Within ten awkward, quiet minutes we arrived at one of the largest VFW posts in Los Angeles. Great throngs of people, dressed in Sunday best, were filing into the building. It was clear that they were families — babes in arms, small children running about, young and middle-aged parents. And in each family group there was a man — an elderly man, dressed in a military uniform, many stooped with age but all with the bearing of men who belonged in that VFW hall. They were all, I would learn later, Filipinos. Their children and grandchildren were Filipino-American; they were not. Yet.
Judge Lew — the first Chinese-American district court judge in the continental United States — pulled his robe from the trunk and walked briskly into the VFW hall with his externs and clerks trailing behind him. We paused in the foyer as he introduced us to some of the VFW officers, who greeted him warmly. He donned his robe and peered through a window in a door to see hundreds of people sitting in the main hall, talking excitedly, the children waving small American flags and streamers about. One of the VFW officers whispered in his ear, and he nodded and said "I'll see them first." The clerks and my fellow extern were chatting to some INS officials. The judge beckoned me, and I followed him through a doorway to a small anteroom.
There, in a dark and baroque room, we found eight elderly men. They were too infirm to stand. Three were on stretchers, several were in wheelchairs, two had oxygen tanks. One had an empty sleeve where his right arm had been. A few relatives, beaming, stood near each man. One by one, Judge Lew administered the naturalization oath to them — closely, sometimes touching their hands, speaking loudly so they could hear him, like a priest administering extreme unction. They smiled, grasped his hand, spoke the oath as loudly as they could with evident pride. Some wept. I may have as well. One said, not with anger but with the tone of a dream finally realized, "We've waited so long for this."
And oh, how they had waited. These men, born Filipinos, answered America's call in World War II and fought for us. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the men of the Philippines to fight, promising them United States citizenship and veterans benefits in return. 200,000 fought. Tens of thousands died. They weathered the brutal conditions under Japanese occupation, fought a valiant guerrilla war, and in some cases survived the Bataan death march.
In 1946, Congress reneged on FDR's promise. Filipino solders who fought for us and their families were not given their promised citizenship, let alone benefits. Many came here anyway, had children who were born U.S. citizens, and some even became citizens through the process available to any immigrant. But many others, remembering the promise, asked that it be kept. And they waited.
They waited 54 years, until after most of them were gone. It was not until 1990 that Congress finally addressed this particular stain on our honor and granted them citizenship. (They never received their promised benefits, and never will. Some received lump sum payments of up to $15,000 in 2009 under the unpopular stimulus bill, some 68 years after more complete benefits were promised. Most of the happy men I saw that day 20 years ago are dead.)
Hence this July naturalization ceremony. After Judge Lew naturalized the veterans who were too weak to stand in the main ceremony, he quickly took the stage in the main room. A frantic, joyous hush descended, and the dozens of veterans stood up and took the oath. Many wept. I kept getting something in my goddamn eye. And when Judge Lew declared them citizens, the families whooped and hugged their fathers and grandfathers and the children waved the little flags like maniacs.
I had the opportunity to congratulate a number of families and hear them greet Judge Lew. I heard expressions of great satisfaction. I heard more comments about how long they had waited. But I did not hear bitterness on this day. These men and their children had good cause to be bitter, and perhaps on other days they indulged in it. On this day they were proud to be Americans at last. Without forgetting the wrongs that had been done to them, they believed in an America that was more than the sum of its wrongs. Without forgetting 54 years of injustice, they believed in an America that had the potential to transcend its injustices. I don't know if these men forgave the Congress that betrayed them and dishonored their service in 1946, or the subsequent Congresses and administrations to weak or indifferent to remedy that wrong. I don't think that I could expect them to do so. But whether or not they forgave the sins of America, they loved the sinner, and were obviously very proud to become her citizens.
I am tremendously grateful to Judge Lew for taking me to that ceremony, and count myself privileged to have seen it. I think about it every Fourth of July, and more often than that. It reminds me that people have experienced far greater injustice than I ever will at this country's hands, and yet are proud of it and determined to be part of it. They are moved by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature to believe in the shared idea of what America should be without abandoning the struggle to right its wrongs. I want to be one of them.
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