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Filipino Americans

Formal Filipino and U.S. ties began in 1898 when the Philippines became a U.S. protectorate as a result of the Spanish-American War. Although, Filipinos suffered under exclusionary laws and other harsh treatments, their sense of idealism and hope for a better economic, social and political future drew them to the U.S.

Immigration Roots

The first Filipinos on the continental U.S. were mid-16th century Filipino sailors who jumped off Spanish galleons along the Louisiana coast. However, significant migrations to the U.S. did not begin until the U.S. acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Almost immediately, the Filipinos wanted independence from colonial power and the little known Philippine-American War began in 1899. The war ended in 1902 with a U.S. casualty of over 4,000 and a combined military and civilian Philippine casualty of over 220,000—though many historians believe it was over half a million. Between 1898 and 1946, Filipinos entered the United States not as aliens but as U.S. nationals. The Philippines finally gained its independence on July 4, 1946. Although the first Filipinos to arrive in Seattle were in 1883, the first official immigration wave was during 1906 to 1934 when Filipinos went to California and Hawaii as agricultural workers. By the 1920s, Filipinos, largely Alaska salmon cannery and Washington lumber workers, became a major segment of Pacific Northwest’s Asian Pacific American (APA) population. The next migration wave was due to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that drew many Filipino professionals to the U.S. Later migrations would include non-professionals seeking refuge from their native country’s social, political and economic turmoil.

Civil Rights Struggles


When World War II (WWII) broke out, the Philippines was a U.S. territory with Filipinos as U.S. nationals. In 1941, President Roosevelt issued a military order that called “into service of the Armed Forces of the U.S....all of the organized military forces of the government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.” Approximately 142,000 Filipinos fought along side U.S. soldiers under the American flag. For their equal sacrifice, the U.S. government promised them veteran benefits. However, this promise has yet to be kept.

Ever since, Filipino WWII Veterans, now in their 70s and older, have sought full veterans benefits from the U.S. for their services during WWII. There is a pending Filipino Veterans Equity Bill in Congress that would finally honor the promise of veteran benefits to Filipino WWII veterans.

Filipinos faced several civil rights struggles for some time. For example, they were greatly affected by anti-miscegenation laws that forbade the marriages between “Mongolians” and Caucasians, even though Filipinos were largely of mixed origins—primarily Melayo-Polynesian, Spanish, and Chinese. It was not until 1967 that all anti-miscegenation statutes in the U.S. were removed.

Also, during the 1920s and 1930s, Filipinos were run out of Toppenish and were repeatedly harassed in Yakima Valley. Furthermore, Washington State’s Anti-Alien Land Law of 1937 prohibited Filipinos—even though they were U.S. nationals—from owning and leasing land. Filipinos challenged the law’s constitutionality and hired Pio DeCano to lead their case in court. In 1939, the Washington State Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.

Another Pacific Northwest civil rights struggle is in the Wards Cove case, where Filipino cannery workers filed suit against the salmon industry’s discriminatory practices in 1974. Today, the case is before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Justice Blackmun’s dissent to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 Wards Cove decision lends some light to the nature of the struggle: The salmon industry as described (in the Wards Cove case) takes us back to a kind of overt and institutionalized discrimination we have not dealt with in years: a total residential and work environment organized on principles of racial stratification and segregation.

Even though Filipinos lived in a constant climate of racism, they remained deeply loyal to the U.S. Illustrative of this was during World War II when many Filipino men and women joined the military effort to prove their patriotism to America.

Current Population

Approximately 1,000 Filipinos enter the U.S. each year through the Port of Seattle. While some move on, many remain in the area. Approximately 60% of Filipinos live in King County, while others live in Bremerton and in the Yakima Valley. Today, Filipino Americans make up the largest ethnicity within the APA community and in Washington State and in the nation with over 1.2 million.

Noteworthy Filipino Americans

Filipino American contributions in the arts, the labor movement and in politics are noteworthy in their commitment to social justice and democratic idealism. For example, Carlos Bulosan, author of America is in the Heart, lived for a time in Seattle. Silme and Nemesio Domingo and Gene Viernes were labor organizers who helped form the Alaska Cannery Workers Association. The highest political officials of Filipino descent are Dolores Sibonga, who served on the Seattle City Council from 1980 to 1992; and Velma Veloria, who became the first Asian American woman in the state legislature when she was elected in 1992.

Sources: Sucheng Chan, “Asian Americans,” 1991; “Rural Asian Americans,” CAPAA, 1976; Warne, “Washington State,” 1998; Karnow, “In Our Image,” 1989; Takaki, “In the Hearts of Filipino Americans,” 1989; Leckie, “The Wars of America,” 1981; Seattle Times, “Filipino-American WWII vets say U.S. owes them benefits,” May 22, 1998.

©2006 The State of Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs