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Filipinos in U.S. Navy Serve With Little Hope of Attaining Citizenship

Times Staff Writer

I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.

Article I, U.S. Military Code of Conduct

Like all members of the U.S. armed forces, Andy Gomez is expected to live up to the rigid standards of the Code of Conduct. But, for Gomez and about 3,000 other Filipino nationals currently serving in the Navy, that code is a bittersweet reminder that they are foreigners recruited to defend a nation that may send them to fight but is not prepared to offer them citizenship.

“Since I’m not an American citizen, does this mean that I don’t have to abide by the Code of Conduct?” said Gomez, a six-year Navy veteran quick to answer his own question. “Of course. It applies to me and all Filipinos in the Navy. But is it fair that we are willing to fight and die for the United States, but the government won’t allow us to become citizens?”

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Gomez and his 3,000 Filipino colleagues are caught in a military twilight zone that few Navy officials know exist.

The Navy is the only branch of the armed forces authorized to recruit foreign nationals living in their homeland. And the only non-immigrant foreigners permitted to join the Navy are Filipino males. The Army, Marines and Air Force require alien recruits to present proof of U.S. permanent residency before they are allowed to enlist.

Because of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, virtually every Filipino national who joined the Navy before 1978--about 30,000 sailors--was assured of the right to apply for naturalization, due any foreigner who serves in the U.S. Armed Forces during time of war. But that changed when the Vietnam War was declared officially over.

The United States rewards permanent resident aliens who enlist in the armed forces by granting them naturalization if they serve three years of active duty and receive an honorable discharge. But most Filipino nationals who join the Navy in their homeland can only be naturalized if the United States goes to war.

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“I certainly don’t want to gain citizenship that way (by going to war). None of us do,” said Rodrigo Flake, a five-year Navy veteran. “But I think the law should be changed. If it’s not changed, those of us who enlisted after 1978 may serve 20 years without ever getting an opportunity to naturalize.”

San Diego attorney Jesse G. Quinsaat, whose father became a citizen after joining the Navy in the Philippines during World War II , called the problem an “anomaly.”

“The Philippines is the only country where the United States recruits foreign nationals for its armed forces,” Quinsaat said. " . . . If you want to be callous about it, you can say that they are hired as mercenaries, and as mercenaries they can’t expect the same rights accorded to U.S. citizens.”

All of the sailors interviewed for this story said they were told upon their enlistment that joining the Navy would not automatically qualify them for U.S. citizenship. But several Navy officials interviewed by The Times said they didn’t know about this provision.

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Chief Petty Officer Paul Versailles’ reaction was representative of those expressed by other Navy officials. Versailles, a spokesman for the Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said:

“This entire issue came as a surprise to me. But our people are very dedicated, and so far we haven’t seen any effects on professionalism or morale because of it.”

Filipino members of the Navy have met with local attorneys to discuss legal alternatives. They also have convinced Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego) to introduce legislation that would make it easier for them to become citizens.

Filipinos have been enlisting in the Navy since the early 1900s, when the islands were a U.S. colony. A hitch with the Navy long has been considered by Filipinos a chance to escape the grinding poverty of their homeland and a virtual guarantee for United States citizenship.

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When the Vietnam War was declared over in 1978, however, that guarantee expired. Since the end of the war, 3,000 Filipinos have enlisted in the Navy, said Lt. Becky Beckham, a Navy spokeswoman, but “they aren’t eligible for citizenship . . . unless they can apply under other immigration statutes.”

Barring another war--which would give the Filipinos automatic citizenship--the only alternative available to these men is if they have a relative who can sponsor their immigration into this country.

Currently, the military bases agreement allows 400 Filipinos to enlist from the Philippines every year, and the competition for a spot is keen. A spokesman for Navy recruiting said those 400 men are chosen from 24,000 Filipinos who are tested annually.

The applicants must be high school graduates--some have college educations--must enlist for four to six years, and must be proficient in English. In comparison, about 80% of the Navy recruits from the United States finish high school.

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“A lot of these sailors are among the most qualified people coming out of the Philippines . . . Because of the economic conditions in the Philippines, they believe that the only way they can better themselves is by joining the Navy,” Quinsaat said. “Many of these men have degrees in the technical fields like engineering.”

Dan Galang, a five-year veteran, was in his third year of college when he was “picked” by the Navy. Galang was majoring in accounting and now works as a machinist. According to Galang, he was one of 600 aspirants who took the Navy enlistment exam at the same time, but only 11 men were picked.

Galang was in a group of sailors who recently met with a reporter to discuss their cases.

“Don’t misunderstand us, we’re not complaining about the Navy. One thing that we all have in common is that we all love the Navy. The Navy has been good to all of us and has given us opportunities that we didn’t have in the Philippines. . . . We realize that only Congress can change the law, and that’s what we’d like to see happen,” said Galang.

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As late as the 1960s, most Filipinos in the Navy were restricted to menial jobs like cooks, stewards and personal aides to officers. Navy officials say that Filipinos can now compete for all jobs except for those that require security clearances and U.S. citizenship.

The latter category include many highly skilled and technical jobs that Filipinos say they would like to have but are denied access to because they are not citizens.

“Now, this is really absurd. I manufacture parts for nuclear submarines,” Galang said. “I can make these parts, but I can’t install them. Sometimes the guys who are supposed to install the parts don’t know how, so I have to go over there and install the parts for them. When this happens I have to be escorted by another sailor who is a U.S. citizen and he stands behind me to make sure that I don’t harm U.S. security. It’s absurd and demeaning.”

Flake said that if the law was changed in order to make naturalization possible for the Filipinos, “it would help the Navy because many of us are qualified for critical jobs and responsibilities that are now denied us.”

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Because they are not U.S. citizens, Filipino sailors cannot become Naval officers and are destined to finish their careers as enlisted men.

Hunter attempted to change the law through a bill that he introduced in 1984. Hunter’s bill would permit Filipino nationals to apply for citizenship simply by serving honorably for at least three years. However, the measure was never seriously considered and died in the House Judiciary Committee.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say they are sympathetic to the Filipinos call for a change in the law.

“I can certainly understand why they feel this way, especially since they’re serving this country. They may have a very valid point, but it would require a change in the law. And they’ll have to convince Congress of that,” said Randall Romine, an INS spokesman.

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