Filipino immigrants

Significance: During the late twentieth century, Filipinos became one of the fastestgrowing immigrant populations in the United States. By the early twenty-first century, they constituted the third-largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, after Asian Indians and Chinese, and could be found living throughout the North American continent.

Filipino farmworkers in California during the 1930’s

Filipino farmworkers in California during the 1930’s. (Library of Congress)

Although most immigration from the Philippines to the United States occurred during the twentieth century, the earliest identifiable Filipino immigrants arrived in America during the 1830’s.At that time, hunters and trappers of Filipino origin settled in the region of Louisiana below New Orleans, which was then the busiest port in the United States after New York City. At that time, the Philippine Islands were a Spanish colony, and these first Filipino immigrants appear to have reached New Orleans on Spanish ships. As late as the 1930’s, descendants of these early Filipino immigrants, popularly known as "Manila men,” maintained a settlement along the mouth of the Mississippi River and supported themselves by shrimping, fur-trapping, and fishing.

American Involvement in the Philippines

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Philippines came under the political dominance of the United States, a development that would eventually contribute to a large Filipino American population. When the United States fought Spain in the Spanish-AmericanWar in 1898, Filipino rebels were engaged in their own war against their Spanish rulers. When Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy to attack the Spanish at Manila, the Philippines’ capital, the United States established contact with Filipino insurgents. After the United States defeated Spain, the U.S. government did not withdraw its armed forces from the occupied former Spanish colonies, which included the Philippines, Cuba, and Guam. Instead, the United States sent troops to the Philippines to subjugate Filipinos unwilling to accept American rule, and the United States set up its own colonial government.

U.S. governor-general William Howard Taft, who later became president of the United States, was among many Americans who believed that educational programs could help to direct the development of the Philippines and establish ties between the United States and its new colonial subjects. American teachers were sent to the Philippines, and Filipino students known as pensionados were brought to the United States. About 14,000 government- subsidized Filipino students studied in the United States between 1903 and 1938.

Push-Pull Factors

During the decade following the arrival of the first pensionados, Filipino immigration to the United States increased dramatically. The Filipino American population increased from fewer than 3,000 persons in 1910 to more than 26,000 in 1920 and more than 100,000 in 1930. These new immigrants were drawn to America primarily by the demand for labor.

Profile of Filipino immigrants

Country of origin Philippines
Primary language Tagalog, English
Primary regions of U.S. settlement West Coast, Hawaii
Earliest significant arrivals 1830’s
Peak immigration period 1965-2008
Twenty-first century legal residents* 469,033 (58,629 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

During the early twentieth century, American industry grew rapidly and agriculture increasingly became a large-scale enterprise, requiring growing numbers of hired workers. Farming became more regionally specialized as advances in refrigeration and transportation made it practical to grow fruits and vegetables on large regional farms for export to distant parts of the United States. To meet the need for labor, farmers in California and canning factories in Alaska began recruiting Filipino workers. In 1920, the West Coast of the United States alone was home to an estimated 5,600 Filipinos. By 1930, this number had grown to 45,372. Filipino migrant workers provided much of the seasonal labor for fruit and vegetable farms in California, Oregon, and Washington, where they harvested asparagus, grapes, strawberries, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, and beets.

Hawaii, then an American territory, was the destination for many Filipino agricultural workers. American sugarcane planters in Hawaii rapidly expanded their exports during the first decade of the twentieth century and needed workers for the fields. In 1906, A. F. Judd, an attorney representing the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) arrived in the Philippines to recruit workers for the sugarcane fields and to make the legal arrangements to bring them to Hawaii. However, relatively few agricultural workers left the Philippines forHawaii until 1909. During that year, unrest among the Japanese, who until then had made up the majority of laborers in the Hawaiian sugarcane fields, prompted plantation owners and managers to increase their recruiting efforts among Filipinos. When Japanese plantation workers went on strike, Hawaiian planters concluded that they needed a new and more easily controlled labor source.

The peoples of the Philippines speak many different languages, although there are a few widely spoken major languages, such as Tagalog, Ilocano, and several closely related dialects of Visayan. The linguistic diversity among the Filipino immigrants helped the Hawaii planters to avoid the labor problems they had experienced with the linguistically homogeneous Japanese. By being careful to recruit workers from different regions of the Philippines, they limited communication among Filipino field-workers. Between 1909 and 1914, about 4,000 Filipinos made the voyage from the Philippines to Hawaii each year. Their numbers decreased after 1915, when the Philippine legislature passed laws regulating the recruitment and treatment of Filipino workers. The numbers picked up again during the 1920’s, however. By 1925, around half of all plantation workers in Hawaii were Filipinos. By the early 1930’s, Filipinos made up about three-fourths of all Hawaii plantation workers.

From the 1930’s to 1965

The wave of Filipino immigrant labor to the United States that began in the first decade of the twentieth century became a trickle in 1934. During that year, the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings- McDuffie Act, which transformed the political status of the Philippines into a commonwealth—the first step toward independence for the Philippines. Under the law’s provisions Filipinos were no longer considered American nationals, and immigration from the Philippines was limited to fifty persons per year. When World War II reached the Philippines in 1942, Japan occupied the Philippine Islands, bringing even this limited flow of migration to the United States to a temporary halt.

After World War II, the United States recognized the full independence of the Philippines. However, the U.S. government still maintained a presence in the Philippines that contributed to new forms of migration. In 1946, the U.S. Congress passed the Luce-Celler Bill, which increased the Philippines’ immigration quota from fifty to one hundred persons per year. Spouses of U.S. citizens were not counted within this quota, however, and they became a major part of Filipino immigration. Meanwhile, the United States retained large military bases in the Philippines, ensuring an ongoing presence of large numbers of mostly male American military personnel, some of whom interacted socially with Filipino women. Many Filipino- American marriages resulted from these contacts. Between 1946 and 1965, as many as one-half of all immigrants from the Philippines arriving in the United States were wives of U.S. servicemen.

In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Education Exchange Act, another piece of legislation that promoted the immigration of a new category of Filipinos who would join the growing Filipino American population. The 1948 law enabled foreign nurses to spend two years in the United States for study and professional experience. Differences between American and Filipino living standards lured many Filipino nurses to remain in the United States after they completed their training, and the large demand for nurses in the United States made it relatively easy for them to find work.

Post-1965 Immigration

The 1960 U.S. Census counted 105,000 people living in the United States who had been born in the Philippines. At that moment, Filipinos constituted the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, only slightly behind immigrants born in Japan. As American restrictions on immigration from Asia were relaxed after 1965, the historical ties between the Philippines and the United States set the stage for a new wave of Filipino migration.

Immigration from the Philippines, 1930-2008

Immigration from the Philippines, 1930-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status. There are no data for Filipino immigration before 1930.

When Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart- Celler Act), the United States adopted a new immigration policy that dropped the former quota system of immigration that had been biased in favor of immigrants from northern and western Europe. The new basis for admitting immigrants was a set of preferences, with immigrants migrating to reunite with family members in the United States given the highest priority classifications, followed by immigrants with needed job skills. The new immigration policy opened immigration to the United States to many parts of the world, and the numbers of immigrants began climbing dramatically.

Thanks to the historical links between the United States and the Philippines, Filipinos were in a particularly good position to take advantage of the change in American immigration law. Because the Philippines remained a relatively low-income country—even though it had many well-educated and highly skilled people—and the United States was one of the world’s most prosperous nations, Filipino interest in emigrating to the United States was great. Moreover, many potential immigrants already had skills that were in demand in the United States and some familiarity with the English language and American culture.

Many post-1965 immigrants from the Philippines were highly skilled professionals. Before 1960, fewer than 2 percent of the people of Filipino ancestry residing in the United States had professional occupations, compared to 6 percent of all Americans. By contrast, two decades later, about one-quarter of all Filipinos in the United States were professionals. By the twenty-first century, this figure had risen to nearly one-third.

The United States had a particularly strong demand for medical workers that Filipinos could supply because the American occupation of the Philippines had established American training and standards in the islands. As a consequence, nurses, physicians, medical technicians, and other medical professionals were heavily overrepresented among the occupational fields of Filipino immigrants to the United States.

Nurses, who had already begun moving from the Philippines to the United States after passage of the 1948 Education Exchange Act, began arriving in the United States in even greater numbers following the passage of the Health Professions Assistance Act in 1976. This piece of legislation required professionals to have firm job offers from American employers before they could immigrate to the United States. This law was followed by active cooperation of immigration officials with American hospitals in recruiting nurses. Again, the special historical connections between the United States and the Philippines meant that the Philippines was training nurses ready for work in the United States, making that Asian country an ideal recruiting ground for immigrants.

Changing Push-Pull Factors

During the 1960’s, the American military presence in the Philippines continued and even grew along with American involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1980, one quarter of all married Filipino American women had husbands who had served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War period. The popular identification of the Philippines as a source of wives also expanded into civilian American society, so that marriages arranged by mail between women in the Philippines and men in the United States were becoming common during the 1970’s. By the early 1990’s, an estimated 19,000 so-called mail-order brides were leaving the Philippines each year to join husbands and fiancés abroad, with the United States their primary destination.

As the Filipino American population increased, a growing number of residents of the United States had immediate relatives in the Philippines. Because the 1965 change in immigration law had made family reunification the category that allowed the most immigrants, this meant that each new immigrant opened the way for others. The result was an exponential growth in the Filipino American population throughout the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 2.5 million people of Filipino descent were living in the United States, ranking Filipino Americans only slightly behind Asian Indian Americans and a little further behind Chinese Americans.

In 2007, more than 72,500 people from the Philippines were admitted to legal permanent residence in the United States, and nearly 39,000 people born in the Philippines became naturalized U.S. citizens. By this time, Filipino Americans were living in communities across the United States, but the single largest concentration could be found in California’s Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan area, in which an estimated 380,000 Filipinos resided in 2007.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

Bankston, Carl L. "Filipino Americans.” In Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. Edited by Pyong Gap Min. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006. Sociological survey of modern Filipino American communities throughout the United States. 

Bulosan, Carlos. American Is in the Heart: A Personal History. 1946. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974. Memoir of perhaps the best-known Filipino American writer, who came to the United States as an immigrant fieldworker during the 1930’s. 

_______. On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. Edited by Epifanio San Juan, Jr. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Additional writings by Bulosan documenting the Filipino American immigrant experience. 

Espiritu, Yen Le. Homebound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Study of how Filipino immigrants have adapted to American culture and society built around interviews with more than one hundred Filipino Americans. 

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York: Random House, 1989. History of the American conquest and occupation of the Philippines and efforts to impose American culture and institutions on the island nation. 

Okamura, Jonathan Y. Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities. New York: Garland, 1998. Exploration of Filipino immigration that examines the subject in the context of Filipino emigration to more than 130 countries around the world. 

See also: Alaska; Anti-Filipino violence; California; Exeter incident; Filipino American press; Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935; Hawaii; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Indonesian immigrants; Luce-Celler Bill of 1946; Mail-order brides; Malaysian immigrants.

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