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The Significance of 1946 for Filipina/o Americans

By Dr. Dawn B. Mabalon, Associate Professor, Dept. of History, SFSU
National Scholar, Filipino American National Historical Society

The end of World War II, and in particular, the year 1946, was a watershed year for Filipinas/os in the United States. Moreover, the 20 years from 1945-1965 were significant in both United States history and Philippine history. World War II transformed the lives of Filipinas/os like no other event before, with the exception of the Spanish-American War in 1898 which ended Spanish colonial rule and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1913, the American conquest of the Philippines.  In many ways, the events of 1946 brought us the community we know today, with Filipinas/os as the second largest API group in the United States and the largest in California.

This postcolonial era — framed by Cold War security and propaganda needs of the United States and the rise of an independent new nation called the Republic of the Philippines — fundamentally changed the relationship between the two countries and the fate of the more than 150,000 Filipinos living in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland by the end of World War II. In 1946, the Philippines became an independent nation, Filipinos in the United States were able to become naturalized citizens after many decades of struggle, which enabled them to vote and own land, Filipino World War II veterans were denied benefits, and the final group of thousands of laborers called sakadas were recruited to work on sugar plantations in Hawai’i.

With the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934), Congress promised the Philippines total independence in 10 years. However, the act reclassified Filipina/o immigrants from “nationals” not subject to immigration exclusion to “aliens” and imposed a quota of 50 Filipino immigrants per year. Barred from citizenship by the 1790 Naturalization Law (which excluded those who were not white from naturalization), and barred from landownership by Alien Land Laws in California and Washington State, Filipina/o immigrants lived in limbo – neither citizen or national, barred from citizenship and the vote, yet deeply committed to living in the United States. At the outbreak of World War II, white supremacist attitudes against Filipinos broke down temporarily when the Commonwealth of the Philippines became a critical U.S. ally against Japanese imperialism in Asia. Filipino aliens were recruited into the U.S. Army into segregated units, the First and Second Filipino Infantry Units. According to historian Barbara Posadas, 10,737 Filipinos who served in the U.S. Armed Forces were granted citizenship during and after World War II. Many of these soldiers met and married Filipinas in the Philippines during their service; the 1945 War Brides Act allowed entry of these spouses and children of the members of the US Armed Forces; a 1946 act allowed for fiancées and fiancés to enter. In the Philippines, more than 200,000 fought in the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and the Philippine Scouts, and were promised full GI Bill benefits at the end of the war.

However, the passage of the Rescission Act in U.S. Congress in March, 1946 reclassified the service of Filipinos who fought in USAFFE as inactive service, effectively excluding them from all GI Bill benefits promised to all soldiers who fought in the US Army and their allied armies (those Filipinos who served in the First and Second Filipino Infantry and in US-based military branches received citizenship and the GI Bill.) For the past three decades, Filipinos in the US and the Philippines have actively lobbied for a restoration of these benefits, i.e., full equity, with other veterans of World War II. In 2009, President Obama signed a bill that gave the surviving veterans a one-time $15,000 payment ($9,000 for Philippine citizens). However, pressure continues for full equity for the handful of veterans still alive. Currently, Major General Antonio Taguba is leading a campaign to award Filipino veterans the Congressional Gold Medal.

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In the spring of 1946 in Hawai’i, more than 6,000 Filipinas/os were recruited to work in Hawai’i in response to what the Hawaiian sugar planters deemed was a severe labor shortage; in fact, they were intended to be scabs as there was a looming strike by the International Longshoreman and Warehousemen Union (ILWU), of whom there were approximately 20,000 Filipina/o, local, and Asian immigrant members. These newly arrived sakadas joined the Great Sugar Strike of 1946. The strike was victorious, and strikers won significant gains, including union recognition, higher wages, job rights, political freedom, pensions, homeownership, and an end to the white supremacy and paternalistic culture of the plantations. This was a significant victory for the more than 100,000 sakadas, or sugar workers, had been recruited from the Philippines throughout the early 20th century for brutal, low-paying work on Hawai’i’s sugar plantations. Sakada ‘46 was the last major migration of Filipino laborers to the United States before the Philippines became an independent nation, and the last major stream of Filipino labor migration to the United States prior to reform of immigration laws in 1965. Among the 6,000 were 1,300 women and children. This migrant flow, called Sakada ‘46, tended to be more educated than their predecessors, and recruiters brought many relatives of earlier arrivals. These migrants were a bridge between the earlier arrivals and those arriving after 1965; in so doing, they formed the basis for the Filipino American community we know today in Hawai’i.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union accused the United States of hypocrisy in its exclusionary and racist immigration policies; in response, the United States looked more favorably upon sending countries which were important allies such as the Philippines and India. The Luce-Celler Bill, passed on July 2, 1946, granted both Filipinos and Indian immigrants the access to naturalization. More than 10,000 Filipinos who were in the United States before 1934 were able to receive naturalization as a direct result. The war postponed the promised independence of the Philippines. Independence was finally granted on July 4, 1946.

In sum, 1946 brought access to naturalization for the Filipina/o American community and ended Filipino exclusion, independence for the Philippines, and union recognition for Filipina/o sugar workers who had created immense wealth, three long-awaited victories for the community. For Filipina/o Americans, the ability to naturalize enabled them to buy land, vote, and petition for their parents, spouses and children to join them under family reunification provisions under U.S. immigration law. This ability to reunite their families and for the emigration of college-educated professionals would expand exponentially with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. In ensuing years, the United States would maintain some of the largest military bases in the world in the Philippines under the 1948 Military Bases Agreement and recruit thousands of Filipinos into the U.S. Navy. The Filipina/o American community we know today was spurred into being by the events and laws of 1946.

These are the several notable events and pieces of legislation that transformed the lives of Filipinos in the Philippines and in the United States in 1946. These include:

• HR 5138, Rescission Act of 1946, passed US Congress March, 1946

  • Act provides for $2M for the pay of United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and Philippine Scouts who fought in World War II and their service, according to the act, “shall not be deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges, or benefits upon any person by reason of the service of such person or the service of any other person in the Armed Forces.”
  • In effect, the act bars veterans in the Philippines from receiving GI Bill benefits.

• Sakada ‘46: More than 6,000 Filipina/o migrant laborers were recruited to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii before the Philippines became independent in July, 1946. They joined thousands of sakadas, or sugar workers, who had emigrated from the Philippines throughout the early 20th century and were the backbone of the sugar industry in Hawai’i. This was the last major migration of Filipino laborers to the United States before the Philippines became an independent nation. Among the 6,000 were 1,300 women and children.

• The passage of the Luce-Celler Bill on July 2, 1946. The act:

  • granted access to naturalization for all Filipinos who had come to the United States before March 1934
  • access to naturalization for all Indian immigrants in the United States
  • limited Filipino and Indian immigration to 100 per year

The formal independence of the Philippines from the United States is granted on July 4, 1946. The first president of the Philippines was Manuel A. Roxas. The Philippines had been a US colony since the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, and the Philippine-American War, when the fledgling Philippine Republic fought against the US colonial regime, from 1899-1913.

• 1946 Alien Fiancées and Fiancés Act

  • Allows for the admission of alien fiancées and fiancés of members of the armed forces of the United States.
  • Supplements the 1945 War Brides Act, which allowed for the entry of alien spouses and alien minor children of citizen members of the US Armed Forces.

For further reading:

Fred Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans. 1983.

Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. Duke University Press, 2013.

Barbara M. Posadas, The Filipino Americans.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Steffi San Buenaventura, “Hawai’i’s 1946 Sakada.” Social Process in Hawai’i, Vol. 37 (1996), 74-90.