Happy Independence Day: A Story About Becoming An American

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

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 Popehat 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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17 Responses to “Happy Independence Day: A Story About Becoming An American”

  1. #1 |  Zeph | 

    “Many came hear”… err. Dude. They came HERE.

    Nice story, though.

  2. #2 |  Chris C. | 

    I teared up while reading your story, both from the joy of an old wrong finally righted, and for the frustration I often feel for the reptiles that dominate the political class. Far too many Americans have no appreciation whatsoever for the dream we had: a shared sense of being an American, and the rule of law that made that dream possible. Nowadays we have let ourselves become myriad factions, all of which want to use the law to help themselves and/or hurt the others.

    I have been reading your blog since it was linked in someone else’s earlier this year. Your attitude and integrity makes me feel better about the sorry state of the law in modern-day America. Thank you.

  3. #3 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    What a great experience, Ken! Thank you so much for sharing it.

  4. #4 |  Onlooker | 

    That’s a great reminder that our nation is not the government in power (that can be corrupt, duplicitous, and power hungry), but the promise of liberty and opportunity. But if we continue to erode our constitution, that promise will die a slow death.

  5. #5 |  Mike | 

    Sad.

    People who are already owed, are longing for permission to belong to a country, by a government which has already betrayed them.

    Americanism is supposed to be the antidote to government worship.

  6. #6 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I note, with considerable rage, that the Congress of 1946 was firmly under the control of the Democrats (that year’s elections would change this). While I am trying to step back from the team vs team model of politics, this one issue – racism – really bugs me. The Democrats loudly trumpet their greater racial inclusion and tolerance, and so far as I can see that reputation is founded on mendacity and hot air. The Democrats are the party of Jim Crow and the Klan. More Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The idea that people should be divided by the color of their skins has been a Democrat constant since the Civil War, only the sales pitch has changed. The Democrats’ claim to be the defenders of racial minorities makes my gorge rise.

  7. #7 |  John Beattie | 

    Schofield, while it’s true that at one point, the Democrats were the party of racism, it switched around the late sixties, early seventies as the Republican party adopted the Southern Strategy under Nixon (working for closer ties with the more racist elements in the South who were alienated when the Democratic party started making racial tolerance part of their rhetoric). Not that all Republicans went along with it (I’m sure many of them recognized how short-sighted the strategy was, and how it would cost them down the line), but it did paint the Republican party as the Old White Guy party. Basically, the leadership of the Republican Party decided to lay down with pigs, and now the whole place kind of stinks. Now, the modern Republican Party is trying to distance itself from that debacle (and they’ve apologized for the Southern Strategy), but it may be some time before they regain the legitimacy they’ve lost in the eyes of some of the public.

    It’s a good lesson about not sacrificing values and long-term goals for short-term political gains.

  8. #8 |  Link: Great 4th of July Story « Threads from Henry's Web | 

    [...] the son of naturalized American citizens, I really appreciated this story from a guest blogger on The Agitator. My own citizenship is derived, as I was a minor when my parents were naturalized, but I distinctly [...]

  9. #9 |  Kathy | 

    “While I am trying to step back from the team vs team model of politics . . .”

    But you couldn’t help yourself could you, Schofield? Happy Independence Day anyway with a heavy emphasis on the Independence.

  10. #10 |  George | 

    Beattie, you’ve bought into Dems’ rather successful attempt to hide their ongoing racism. The Southern Strategy split the Dems in the South over a handful of issues. Actually, the less-racist (who among us is without sin?) tended to go Rep, while the hardcore racist either stayed Dem (and if you’re honest you can recall names) or went indy. Schofield nailed this one.

  11. #11 |  pfair143 | 

    C. S. P. Schofield, according to Wikipedia under History Of United States Congress, both houses of Congress were under Republican rule in 1946 which they lost in 1948.

    “In the 1946 US Congressional election, the Republicans regained control of both the US Senate and US House of Representatives, as a result of President Truman failing to handle the vast post-war labor strikes. The Democrats were able to retake control of Congress in 1948.”

    Not quite so mad now are you?

  12. #12 |  Hannah | 

    Schofield….a short true or false quiz:

    And LBJ* was a…..Republican?
    And Reagan was worried about….welfare queens driving Cadillacs?
    And Goldwater fought tooth and nail against MLK holiday?
    And Ron Paul wrote newsletters praising African-Americans?
    And Santorum was worried about “blah” people?
    And Voter ID for Florida will disenfranchise what racial group?

    *Passed 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which is in great danger from Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy next Scotus term.

  13. #13 |  Happy Fourth | bluejay's way | 

    [...] On a related note: Andrew Sullivan offers a meditation on America here, and points to another inspiring piece here. [...]

  14. #14 |  gwadd | 

    C.S.P. must have been on another planet when the GOP began their “Southern Strategy” in the 1970s and which continues today…

  15. #15 |  Richard | 

    pfair143 @11,

    The winners of the November 1946 election would not take their seats until January 1947. So anything that was done in the year 1946 would be the work of the folks elected in 1944.

  16. #16 |  Robb | 

    Schofield, Beattie, and George, way to miss the point. While it’s sad to reflect on the bigotry of previous generations, it’s completely irrelevant what political labels those people affixed to themselves. The democrat and republican parties were not homogeneous back then, and are not today. The fact that there were some racist democrats and racist republicans back then has no bearing on the racism of today’s democrats and republicans. To say that democrats can’t claim to be not-racist now because they had racist members 66 years ago is ridiculous. Those people are mostly dead. Racism is not inherited.

    The article made careful note of the fact that the Filipino veterans receiving citizenship weren’t bitter, but grateful and joyous. Improving race relations in this country does not entail assigning blame and evening up the score. It’s about treating people fairly. It’s about the present and the future, not the past. The argument about who was more racist in the 1940′s is counter-productive to that end.

  17. #17 |  Thursday trivia #65 | Paul's Down-Home Page | 

    [...] beautiful story of a wrong redressed, and of pride in one’s country. Share this:ShareEmailFacebookLinkedInTwitterLike this:LikeBe [...]

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