Amerasian children; IN SEARCH OF A FATHER
Boston — Peter had a lifelong dream: to find his father. Last spring he left his home in the Philippines to search for him. He has been in the United States ever since. His 10-day visitor's visa long outdated, the risk of deportation constantly hangs over his head. To return to the Philippines could mean a fine, a jail term, or worse.
Yet he has found his father, whom he had not seen since he was five years old -- 17 years ago. And now they are working together to find a legal way for him to stay in the US.
His father, a retired US Army master sergeant, knew he had fathered a son in the Philippines when he was stationed there as a teen-age private.But the years of separation had dimmed his sense of responsibility. Now married with two teenage daughters, suddenly facing up to his past has had a profound effect on him.
"It is a lovely thing," he says, "that the boy had the love to look for his father."
Now he has squarely accepted his responsibilities to his son. His main concern now is not indulging in useless shame for the years he neglected his son , nor in attempts at self-justification. He is intent on finding some way to resolve his son's conflict with US law.
The retired sergeant has signed documents affirming that he is Peter's father , and has engaged an attorney to work on the case.
But because Peter is 22, things are complicated. If his father had married his mother before Peter turned 18 years old, he would have automatically become a US citizen. Even though his father served 22 years in the Army, 18 of which were overseas, he receives no special consideration.
Thousands of children share Peter's plight. Indeed, he is far more fortunate than most. Now he not only knows who and where his father is, but his father is legally claiming him as his own. Many mixed-race children born of Asian mothers have no inkling of their father's identity. Many of these fathers were killed in war. Many GIs never even knew they had fathered children.
What complicates their tragic plight is that these young Amerasians are social outcasts. Brought up in extreme poverty, denied citizenship both in the land of their birth and the land of their fathers, they are denied education and employment. Their very survival is threatened in many cases.
"You know what you do?" says Peter's father. "You go to war and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Then you turn around and give birth to tens of thousands of people and create an inhuman situation for them -- in many cases they might as well be dead. So you create a mess."
"Somebody should get up on the floor of Congress and ask the members of Congress: 'Your sons, the sons of this country, have fathered tens of thousands of children. Does this country have a responsibility? Yes or no? If so, what are we going to do about it?'"
There is before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives legislation that would help these people. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R) of Connecticut introduced a bill as long ago as April 1979 (HR 3439), which would amend the Immigration and Naturalization Act to permit any children fathered by American GIs born after 1950 in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand to apply to enter the US for permanent residence as the sons or daughters of Americans. But they would have to have private sponsors in the US to take financial responsibility for them for five years. Then they could apply for citizenship.
Gerry McKiernan, spokesman for the representative, estimates that this bill would affect about 30,000 children in those four nations. Though conceding it is only a start, he says it "will allow us to begin the process of bringing some of these children to the United States."
Representatives McKinney has rounded up 65 co-sponsors and feels the bill has broad support in Congress. But though the House Judiciary Committee referred it to a subcommittee last July, hearings have not yet been scheduled. If no action is taken before the end of the year when this session of Congress ends, Rep. McKinney's office says he will have to start all over again.
In an allied effort to help Amerasian children in the countries of their birth, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts did get $2 million designated for that purpose in the foreign aid bill of 1978. But no funds were actually appropriated, and the aid bill was cut that year.
However, the US Agency for International Development has alloted a total of about $1 million in grants to be divided among several private American organizations, such as the Pearl Buck Foundation, for housing, health care, education, and vocational training for these mixed-race children in Asia.
Aside from airlifting about 2,000 Amerasian orphans out of Vietnam in the last days of the war in 1975, Washington has done little else to help these children.
Now that Peter's father has finally faced up to his own responsibilities and is trying to make up for lost time, he sees his son's problem as a clear human rights issue.
I feel Peter has a birthright to this country by virtue of my birthright here and my being his father. I feel he deserves as much of a chance in his pursuit of life as I have had. Whatever I have or don't have, he at least deserves a chance to have as much. Living in the Philippines under the present political, social, and economic conditions there, he would never achieve that.
"First and foremost should be his right to have a father, if he has nothing else! And to have access to his father. That's fundamental. Every person should reasonably expect to have a father and mother. . . . Several hundred thousand American men have gone overseas during the past few decades and this situation has happened many times."
The former sergeant isn't saying that citizenship should be granted carte blanche to anybody claiming an American father. But when an American citizen can prove he is the father of a half-Asian child, then, he contends, the child should be allowed to enter the country.
"We have opened the door to literally anybody in Southeast Asia who can get in a boat and go adrift," he says. And though he applauds his country's humanitarianism he finds it "very confusing" that "the immigration authorities say no" to Peter, the son of a US citizen and army veteran. "If the government can make an effort on that scale for that many people," he says, then it should be able to address this problem of mine."
He feels, too, that the tag of illegitimacy which American law ties to these children should be removed. "After all," he says, "we are talking about human beings.
"If a child was fathered by a Frenchman [during France's war with Indochina], " the sergeant says, "he was automatically a French citizen. They brought him to France, educated him, and made sure he had a chance."
Peter's father readily admits that he finds it hard to explain even to himself why he neglected his son for so many years. But here is the story as he told it to the Monitor:
He was about 19 when he was assigned to the Philippines. He met a pretty young Filipino girl who lived near the Army base. It was more than a passing fancy; in fact they set up house with her family and lived together for about a year. It was not an unusual way of life for American servicemen stationed there.
When the time came for him to return to the States in 1957, Peter's father knew that a child was expected. That did not stop him from getting out of the service and entering college. But it wasn't easy to put the experience behind him.
"It worked very strongly on my mind. I was concerned about her and the child to the point where I felt it was necessary for me to go back," the sergeant explains. Within six months he left college and reenlisted. But it was four years before he managed to be re-assigned to the Philippines.
He definitely intended to marry Peter's mother. It was a happy reunion. But he soon realized it could not last.
"I knew after I was there a week ago or so there were too many differences between us, particularly from an intellectual standpoint," he says. "She was not someone I could live with the rest of my life. We could never pursue a happy marital life. There was no use for me to compound the problem."
But for the next two years he was a father to Peter. He remembers him as "a cute, innocent little kid being raised in a very poor environment, which was extremely disturbing to me. So I made sure that whatever was necessary was there financially. Peter knew he had a father. That was important.
"It was difficult for me to accept that fact that I was going to have to leave. What was I going to do?" He recalls asking Peter's mother is she would be willing to give him up. She wasn't. Even if she had been willing, Peter's father says, he came to feel it would not have been right to take the child away from its mother, especially at so young an age.
In January 1963 the break came. Like so many other American servicemen, Peter's father said goodbye and flew home, this time never to return.
By October that year he married an American citizen, and all contact with his Asian family ceased. "I was straightforward with my wife about this situation," he explains. "Before we were married, I told her what I am telling you. I wasn't married long before I went overseas for a long time." In his new situation, the sergeant was in a poor position to give any kind of assistance to his little son.
Looking back on the experience now, he says. "It's a most peculiar thing. I think a person gets a defeatist attitude. You're involved to the point where it bothers you so much that you did what you did that you went back the second time and tried to do right. But it was impossible for you to do right. I guess I just decided, 'Well, I tried, but things didn't work out. What am I going to do? Am I going to condemn myself for the rest of my life?' And you try to shut it out with nice things.
"My other two children came, and I led a colorful, active, interesting life. It was easy. Had I been sitting on some farm in South Georgia I would have gone crazy. But I traveled throughout all of Europe and Asia and the Middle East."
During these years, Peter's Filipino family struggled to put him through high school in a country where secondary schools are not free. In 1974, when Peter was 16, he wrote to his grandmother asking for his father's address. There was no reply. his family thought his father had died.
Finally in 1976 Peter's hopes were revived. His father wrote him a Christmas card. Peter replied at once, sending him pictures of himself. Peter's cousins on his mother's saide, with whom he now resides in the US, also wrote, urging his father to bring the boy to America so that he could have a college education.
But their pleas reached the master sergeant just as he was making the transition to civilian life. He moved to another location, more time elapsed, and once again his son lost contact. Meanwhile Peter's cousins brought him to the States last year on a visitor's visa.
It was Peter's grandmother who caused the first real stirrings of conscience in her son. Peter was on her mind. She asked her son to get in touch with him, just before she passed or in November.
"That was just the motor I needed to push me," the sergeant says. "It made a terrific impression on me. I had a lot of things to think about after she left. You ask yourself: 'Where are you going? What kind of a person are you? What print are you going to leave when you aren't here?" I do have feelings and I am a compassionate person."
In March he was going through some papers and found one of Peter's letters. It was then that he summoned the will to pick up the phone and call the boy's cousins just to inquire how his son was.
Peter answered the phone. "When he asked me, 'Who is this?', I said, 'Mr. Smith,' and slammed the phone! I stood back and just looked at the phone in utter disbelief and fright. How did he get here? Under what circumstances? I didn't know. Then I thought, 'If he has done enough to get here, he's got that much backbone to him.'"
At that moment this prodigal father found the moral courage to call back. Then came the startling words, "Hi, Dad!" that launched a new and loving relationship between father and son.
Now that this retired master sergeant has come to terms with decisions he made as a young man, what advice, if any, does he have for young men today who find themselves in foreign lands?
"Whatever I have to say would be from the position of a 43-year-old man. One has to be very fair when he starts talking to people 18 or 19 years old. How they are raised depends a lot on how people react. I think parents should teach children the idea of respect for other people's rights, and the idea of responsibility. . . . If they condition their children to those principles, I think they'll react in a responsible manner.
"young men do have fun and play games. But it is a very, very serious matter when playing games and having fun involves human life. If mistakes are made, one should act responsibly and try to do something about it.
"If you are going to bring a child into the world, then you have the obligation to provide and educate that person until he is of an age to go out and fend for himself. That's your resonsibility. You take it on when you become a father.
"I wouldn't want my son to go overseas and do what I did. No way! I regret what I did. I don't regret that Peter is here. I am happy that he is here now. But I regret the situation.
"I was very remiss in my responsibility during that period of noncontact. And it has had its impact on me. It has not made my life any better. It has not made me a better person. This is the thing I have always had to contend with -- my conscience. I've always had to live with this. If a human being is put in a situation like this and it doesn'tm bother him, I don't know what could be said for him.
"Of course, we have this situation right here in this country. We're not just talking about going overseas. People father children and then they bug out , and the children go on welfare."
He has also come to feel that it is important to give children spiritual training. It is something he himself lacks, he says, and it possibly could have helped him with this situation years ago.
"Right now I see I have made mistakes with my children, and I don't know how to turn around because we don't have any sort of spiritual foundation. That should be part of the educational process of bringing up children. There are things other than material things and human values.This is something much deeper. There comes a time when your father and mother can't provide an answer to issues that surface and you have to turn to some other sort of help."
He says he doesn't think that the military can be blamed for immoral conditions among its men. Military authorities live up to their obligations, he says. They have the Chaplain Corps. They have mandatory meetings in character guidance. He doesn't believe that GIs should be required to live on base. "You would be denying human rights there, also. That is not the answer.
From a moral standpoint, he believes that foreign governments also bear some responsibility for the birth of mixedrace children. "But to expect any sort of positive effort on their part," he says, "is not realistic."
Indeed, the Pearl Buck Foundation in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, the only private organization in America devoted exclusively to assisting amerasian children, has recently received a letter that has aroused its suspicions that one country -- Vietnam -- may be contemplating action quite the opposite of positive assistance.
The letter is from the Asian wife of a GI requesting permission to enter the US for herself and their 11-year old son so that she can try to locate her American husband.
John Shade, executive director of the foundation, says that unlike the usual run of handwritten, pidgin English letters from Vietnam mothers urging American fathers to either take their abandoned half-Asian children or provide financial assistance for them, this letter is typed, is couched in diplomatically correct language, includes all necessary documents, and shows an intimate knowledge of every piece of informations required by American authorities to initiate immediate action.
The letter could never have been written by the mother, Mr. Shade believes, or even by a professional letter writer, common in that country. He concedes that he may be reading too much into a single communication. But it is his belief that the Vietnamese government had a hand in writing it.
He fears this may be the opening gun in that nation's efforts to rid itself of all the estimated 15,000 mixed-race children of the Vietnam war, even as it has encouraged ethnic Chinese to leave. He believes that Vietnam may be testing how far the buck Foundation and the US will go in assisting Amerasian children, even as the Cuban government is currently challenging the US to accept all the refugees it is willing to send to American shores.
"My guess," says Mr. Shade, "is that the position of the Vietnam leadership is that such mixed-race children are the chattel of their fathers, and that their fathers and their fathers' nation ought to bear finacial responsibility for them."
US State Department spokesmen, though interested in and curious about the letter, are noncommittal as to its significance. They have assured Mr. Shade that this Vietnamese mother and her son will be able to enter the country. The foundation will pay their airfare to Bangkok. The US government will pay for their flight from there to the West Coast where Mr. Shade is scheduled to meet them in May.
This could turn out to be just another case of an Amerisian child hunting for his American father. But in any case, the plight of American-Asian children is at last beginning to receive some official attention.