Like most immigrant groups in the United States, Filipino Americans are caught between two worlds. American life emphasizes citizens’ participation in civics and politics while most migrants in America remember how politics is corrupt, only for the few and powerful back homes. Filipino immigrants tend to focus more on getting established, rather than getting involved in politics and elected in office.
Filipino-Americans have labored in Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations, picked vegetables in California, tended Washington’s strawberry fields and worked in Alaska’s fish canneries. They now take care of the sick and elderly, educate America’s children, serve in the U.S. military, and help power commerce and industry yet they haven’t achieved much political success in capturing political power compared to other minority groups. Why?
Filipino migration in America.
Most people think of Filipinos as recent immigrants to the Americas, but the first Filipinos’ documented presence in the Americas — sailors jumping ship from the Manila-Acapulco trade route — was around October 1587 in Morro Bay, California, and the first permanent Filipino settlement was established in the bayous of Louisiana years before the American Revolution for independence.
Mass migration began in the early 20th century when, for a period following the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was a territory of the United States. During the 1920s, many Filipinos immigrated to the United States as unskilled labor mostly in the farmlands of Hawaii and California, to provide better opportunities for their families back at home. A majority of the migrant Fil-Am populations have come to the United States only in 1965 when the immigration laws were liberalized.
Another entry point for many Filipinos dreaming of coming to America is the US Navy. The American bases in the Philippines served as recruiting stations for young men from the Philippines. At some point, there were more Filipinos in the US navy than in the entire Philippine naval force.
The top 10 states with the largest concentrations of Filipinos include California, Hawaii, Texas, Washington, Nevada, Illinois, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Virginia. As of 2018, there are 4.1 million Filipino Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey (ACS) data. Filipino-Americans constitute the second-largest population of Asian- Americans, and the largest population of Overseas Filipinos.
The economic, social, political, and military ties forged between the Philippines and the United States during the more than a century of colonial and post-colonial rule contributed to the influx of Filipino migrants in the United States.
The invisible minority
There is strength in numbers yet one would wonder why the group’s political power hasn’t followed the growth of its population. Filipino-Americans are now the fastest-growing demographic in most cities, states, and the U.S., but the community is still underrepresented on all levels of government. They have been neglected, but they are actually a group that has a lot of political potentials.
In their fight to build political power, Filipino-Americans face several structural and cultural barriers. Asians are socially molded as the ‘model minority’ which is the image created for migrants in the US. It means that they must do everything right and succeed. With it also comes the expectation that the group has to become an ‘invisible minority’, meaning you’ve got to have your head down, work hard, and not make any noise. Thus, many in the political establishments of both parties kind of label Fil-Ams as simply quiet, apathetic and have a world of their own, and [that] politics is not really the profession for them.
They could do a lot more in terms of visibility in mainstream politics, but they need some role models, they need some cases of success. Filipino Americans produced one state Governor in the person of Ben Cayetano (Hawaii) and four members of Congress – Fmr. Senator John Ensign of Nevada, Fmr. Rep. Steve Austria of Ohio, Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia, and Rep. TJ Coxx of California. There are more Fil-Ams at the state level but it isn’t commensurate to the numbers and power potentials of the group.
The main mode of participation among Filipino Americans is thru voting but they tend not to support political campaigns with financial contributions or volunteer time, which may partly explain the group’s lack of visibility and clout. Most of the migrant Filipinos also prioritize supporting their families back home than participate on politics.
In America, voting is not the only way you show political power. It can also be expressed thru campaign contributions and political engagement but the Fil-Ams limited time due to multiple jobs and different priorities constrain their participation in America’s political culture.
If Filipino-Americans want their needs to be addressed by the US government they need to strengthen their civic participation by engaging their leaders thru lobbying and community organizing.
Filipino-Americans also need to bridge partnerships with other minority groups. The current system is designed to pit minority groups against another minority groups. Fil-Ams need to work in peace with other minority groups especially with other Asians and Hispanics in order to broaden and strengthen their ranks so that they can all get more of what they want from the government.
Ethnic community nonprofit organizations can facilitate integration into mainstream civic engagement. Some strive to give their constituents political voice and power but less than a percent of Filipino-American nonprofits are advocacy groups. Most organizations formed by Filipino migrants are cultural and religious. Filipino-Americans need to create, involve, and develop advocacy groups since they are vital to political participation and representation.
It is worth the Fil-Am community’s time to take stock of their situation and consider what more they can do to get their voices heard and gain political clout. Brown power should not just be a dream, we must struggle and achieve it.