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Getting to America

By David Haldane

Feb. 5, 2024



It was a moment of uncertainty.

Would we get the smiling, easy-going immigration officer who seemed like a friend? Or the angry, crazed one with vengeance in his eyes? Suddenly, we heard our names called. And, sure enough, got waved into the office of the man with the sneer.

“Oh my God,” I silently implored, “please let this day end well.”

My Filipino wife and I were at the offices of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services in Los Angeles applying for her permanent green card to legally stay in America. Both of us understood the extreme importance of this interview. We were also beginning to realize the truth of what we’d been told; that our success or failure depended entirely on the whims of the interviewer to which we were assigned.

Not unlike the challenge another Filipino recently faced, but with a major difference; in Noel Talania’s case, someone’s life depended on the outcome. Talania had traveled from his provincial Philippine home to the US Embassy in Manila to get a tourist visa for entry to the United States. His mission; providing critical bone marrow for a distant cousin suffering from leukemia in Los Angeles.

“The problem is trying to get your case to stand out to a government official,” the cousin—41-year-old Arthur Yu—told the Los Angeles Times.

Talania tried twice. The first interviewer turned him down cold, concluding that he would likely remain in the US illegally. So Talania appealed, compiling documents (with Yu’s help) including a doctor’s letter confirming the bone marrow transplant’s dire necessity, the recommendation of a US senator, proof that Yu could support him during his stay, and a marriage license showing the Filipino’s intention to return.

But the application got rejected again, this time by another interviewer who didn’t even look at the documents. It was only after the story attracted the attention of the Los Angeles Times and other media that Talania’s visa got approved late last month.

“I’m so relieved that the State Department was able to make this right,” Yu declared in a video posted on Facebook.

Anyone familiar with Philippine/American immigration knows the near impossibility of Filipinos getting tourist visas. In the 21 years since my first visit, I’ve known only one besides Talania who succeeded. In fact, the citizens of just 41 countries are allowed visa-free entry to the US, including Andorra, Brunei, Estonia, Taiwan, and Singapore, but never the Philippines.

Which is ironic, given America’s porous southern border by which millions of illegal Mexican and South American migrants enter each year. So, when asked for advice, I jokingly advise Filipino friends to simply enter Mexico and walk due north.

The Philippines ranks 73rd globally in the capacity of its citizens to travel abroad without visas, according to this year’s Henley Passport Index, an annual report. The two other countries sharing that ranking are Cape Verde Islands and Uganda from where citizens can enter 69 countries visa free. Surprisingly, the US ranks only 7th along with Canada and Hungary. And the highest-ranking countries include France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

None of which was on our minds the day my wife and I faced that scowling interviewer who held our fate in his hands. “So,” he said, glancing at the application, “you worked for the LA Times?”

To be fair, I don’t remember his exact words. In my memory, though, this was their gist: that the Times is a left-wing rag employing only communists, so what the heck was I doing there?

I knew the correct answer immediately. “Yes,” I agreed, nodding enthusiastically, “you’re absolutely right. I’m so glad they no longer employ me!”

“Welcome to America,” he said, stamping our application with his official seal of approval.

Thank God the newspaper wasn’t as interested in us as it is in importing human bone marrow.






David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in the Manila Times.









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