Virginia governor Ralph Northam recently announced a series of historical markers to increase statewide commemoration and recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Virginians. Included in the plan, Virginia will commemorate the history of U.S. Naval service by Filipinos and Filipino Americans and pay homage to the flourishing local Filipino population through the placement of a historical marker entitled “Filipinos in the U.S. Navy” in Hampton Roads, Virginia. There were 108,004 Filipinos in Virginia as of 2020, and the Hampton Roads region encompasses the second-largest Filipino community on the East Coast.
Virginia's Filipino population draws its roots from a broad history of US-Philippines naval engagement. For much of the 20th century, both Hampton Roads and the Philippines were notable for housing the U.S.'s two largest naval bases. Starting in 1947, in response to Philippine independence and the burgeoning Korean War, a U.S.-Philippines agreement stipulated a program for direct Filipino enlistment into the Navy. Thereafter, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act strengthened the Filipino population in America by liberalizing immigration laws and allowing residents to petition for family members’ immigration to the United States. The Act also allotted for the naturalization of Filipino armed force members and encouraged hospitals to recruit Filipino nurses and doctors.
Today, the Hampton Roads region has two sister city connections with the Philippines: both Norfolk, Virginia with Cagayan de Oro, Philippines and Virginia Beach, Virginia with Olongapo, Philippines—where the US Navy base at Subic Bay stands. The continued growth of Filipinos in Hampton Roads has led to a firm electorate that includes politically active veterans of the Navy, and Filipino Americans continue to claim a larger role in the region’s political affairs.
Legislation regarding the Filipino American population have also been consistently reintroduced in recent sessions of Congress. The Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act, which seeks to amend the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act by liberalizing the allotted immigrant visas for family members of Filipino war veterans, has circulated Congress since 2007 and was most recently reintroduced into the 117th Congress in 2021. Likewise, the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act, which also seeks to address the citizenship of Filipino veterans, has been re-introduced in nearly every Congress since 1993. The deep ties of Filipino service in the U.S. Navy remain a relevant aspect of the Philippines-US bilateral relationship to this day, and the recent legislation and commemorative measures represent a new dimension through which the United States can demonstrate the significance of naval engagement with the Philippines.
Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.