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Meet Alma, one of the 'numerically limited'

Filipina visa applicant wonders what the hype is all about

Marites Da�guilan Vitug REPORTING FROM MANILA

Alma Hall has been waiting for seven years for an immigrant visa to the United States. In 1993, she was 24 years old when her father, a Filipino veteran who fought with US forces during the Second World War, petitioned her from California. To this day, she has no idea whether she will receive a visa and be able to join him.

Alma's two younger sisters were lucky, and they have already left. They joined their father after a quick, painless wait of only two months. Her mother left last year-by choice. She could have departed much sooner, but she was anxious about leaving her nine other children behind. The rest of Alma's brothers and sisters are married and settled in the Philippines and are not being petitioned by her father.

Alma's kid sisters and her mother belong to a top-priority group within the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS. Her siblings who departed were under 21 and unmarried, and they, being minors, and their mother, the spouse of an American citizen, are among the group of "immigrants not numerically limited"-a swift ticket to the United States.

The INS limits other categories�"immigrants with numerical limitations"�and allows only 675,000 persons from these sectors, from various parts of the world, to immigrate to the United States each year. Included in this agonizingly slow lane are the likes of Alma Hall, or "family-sponsored immigrants" who are over 21. Others who must wait are married sons and daughters of US citizens and their spouses and children, as well as the brothers and sisters of US citizens. Employment-based immigrants are also restricted.

The story of Alma and her family is common among Filipinos waiting to emigrate to America. "Waiting time for the INS to approve an immigrant petition ranges anywhere from several months to more than 20 years, depending on the category," says Tom Skipper, press attach� for the US embassy. "The real hurdle is getting an INS-approved petition. Virtually everyone who is approved by the INS eventually receives an immigration visa."

Every year, the US embassy in Manila processes about 25,000 immigrant visas. From October 1998 to September 1999, 24,419 Filipinos (2,199 were fianc�es) happily walked away with their visas.

Long lines used to be a fixture outside the US embassy on Roxas Boulevard alongside languid Manila Bay. From dawn till noon, the lines would not waver. These were Filipinos applying for tourist or business (nonimmigrant) visas; some had been rejected once or twice but still persisted. Last year, the US embassy adopted a new system whereby applicants call and pay a hefty phone fee to make an appointment for a visa interview.

"If the visa comes, it's okay. If not, then it's alright, too," says a resigned Alma. Initially, she was eager and anxious to move to the United States, but she has learned not to expect anything. Single, her work as a dentist keeps her busy.

Alma, however, remains intrigued by the hordes of people wanting to go to the United States. Last year, she accompanied her mother to the US embassy in Manila for a mandatory visa interview. They left their home in the suburbs at 5:30 am to arrive at the embassy before traffic clogged the roadways. While in the embassy, they sat in the full waiting room for four to five hours before their 10-minute interview began.

"Why are so many Filipinos diehard about the US?" Alma asks, reflecting on that experience. "I wonder what the big deal is all about." Apart from joining her family in Long Beach, California, this is what keeps her interest in the United States alive. She is most curious about America and what it is all about.

Filipinos have been swept up in a love-hate relationship with the United States, especially when the US government supported the authoritarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the United States maintained two of its largest military bases in the Philippines. Only as recently as 1992 were the bases shut down.

Still, Filipinos feel at home with American music, books, magazines, movies, fashion and especially English. Foreigners who visit the Philippines find it easy to move around because taxi drivers, sales clerks in malls, security guards and secretaries all understand a fair amount of English.

It was a defining moment, when Filipinos realized the importance of being part of a region rather than being a satellite of the United States, always focussed on bilateral relations with the superpower. Today, it is common for Philippine presidents to travel first to other Southeast Asian nations and then to Washington, D.C.

Marites Da�guilan Vitug is the The WorldPaper associate editor for Southeast Asia.

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