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Filipino Challenges INS Over Naturalization Order

Times Staff Writer

Five years later, the U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada has stirred a federal court battle pitting two unlikely opponents--a group of American servicemen and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

President Reagan inadvertently triggered the dispute on Feb. 2, 1987, when he signed what was then considered an innocuous executive order extending immediate citizenship to those aliens who were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces and who served honorably in the Grenada campaign. The order formally designated Oct. 25 to Nov. 2, 1983, as a period of hostilities with a foreign force.

But what started as a good-will gesture from a grateful executive branch soon erupted into a federal lawsuit when a Filipino sailor who did not serve in Grenada applied for immediate citizenship. The Reagan Administration hoped to limit the offer of citizenship to those aliens who saw action in Grenada.

Written with the assistance of INS attorneys, the order affected permanent resident aliens and Filipino nationals. As a part of the agreement that allows U.S. military bases in the Philippines, Filipinos are permitted to enlist in the U.S. Navy in their homeland without first obtaining permanent residency status. Permanent resident aliens are allowed to enlist in all branches of the U.S. armed services.

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The Navy is the only branch of the U.S. armed forces authorized to recruit foreign nationals, and the only foreigners it can recruit are Filipinos. An obscure part of the Immigration Code extends citizenship to Filipino sailors--without requiring them to first obtain permanent residency visas--if they serve on active duty when the President declares a period of hostilities.

Navy and INS officials declined to discuss the case because the lawsuit is still pending. However, Navy officials said that as many as 1,700 Filipino sailors could qualify for naturalization because they were on active duty during the Grenada campaign.

San Diego-based Navy electrician’s mate Arthur E. Reyes, 29 and a 7 1/2-year veteran, based his application last October on the assumption that Reagan’s executive order automatically qualified for citizenship all Filipino sailors who were in the service at the time.

Reyes, who was assigned to a submarine tender docked in San Diego during the Grenada campaign, was one of a group of Filipino sailors who did not serve in Grenada but who submitted applications to the INS anyway. Like the others, Reyes’ petition was routinely rejected by immigration officials.

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Reyes, a law school graduate, sued. After researching the immigration statute that prescribes the legal requirements that Filipino sailors must meet in order to be naturalized, he determined that Reagan has the authority to declare a period of hostilities, but not to place a geographic limitation.

Experts in immigration law agree with Reyes’ interpretation of the immigration statute. They said the law’s legislative history--which has covered World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War--has never allowed the President or Congress to limit eligibility based on place of service.

Under that interpretation, for example, thousands of Filipino sailors who never set foot in Vietnam or sailed off its coast obtained citizenship during the Vietnam War. They became naturalized solely because they were on active duty and served honorably during that period.

Carl Shusterman, a former INS prosecutor who is now in private practice in Los Angeles, said that the INS does not have “a legal foot to stand on” in opposing Reyes’ lawsuit. “I don’t have any doubt that Mr. Reyes will prevail. . . . This is a slam-dunk case. I don’t see grounds for a government argument unless they turn around and say that Reagan’s order is really void,” Shusterman said.


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