Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935

The Law: Federal legislation designed to help Filipino immigrants return to their homeland

Date: Signed into law on July 10, 1935

Significance: This federal law provided free transportation for Filipino residents of the continental United States who wished to return home but could not afford to do so. The act was backed by both humanitarians concerned about the condition of Filipinos, many of whom were unemployed or destitute during the Great Depression, and anti-Asian exclusionists who wanted Filipinos out of the United States.

As a territory of the United States from the time of the 1898 Spanish-American War until the year following the end of World War II, the Philippines was a major source of immigration into the United States. Between 1935 and 1940, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the Filipino Repatriation Act permitted the U.S. government to pay the transport costs of Filipinos who wanted to return home but lacked the financial means to do so. The law was not widely used; only about 2,200 people were granted money under its provisions during the five years the law was in effect.

Historical Background

The first Filipino immigrants to arrive in America, called “Manila men,” escaped slave labor on Spanish ships sailing to Mexico during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and took up work fishing and shrimping near New Orleans. Immigration increased rapidly following the Spanish- American War in 1898, when the Philippines became a U.S. colony. Filipinos entered the country on U.S. passports and were not considered to be aliens.

Some of the early immigrant Filipinos, called pensionados, were Muslim students who were supported by the federal Pensionado Act of 1903. Several attended Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, and the University of California in Berkeley. Many of these students started Filipino student groups that remained active into the twenty-first century. Some returned home and convinced others to seek education in the United States. While some were successful, others were forced by lack of money to work in California as migrants, in Hawaii sugar plantations (as sakadas, or contract workers), and in Alaska fish canneries.

By 1930, men made up 94 percent of the Filipino immigrant workforce, who hoped to save enough money to return home and buy homes and land. As the Great Depression intensified, many of these plans were scuttled. Some of the Filipino workers also became involved in union organizing, which provoked some agricultural enterprises and other employers to call for their expulsion. In the meantime, some U.S. cities, notably in California, became home to sizable communities, with dance halls, restaurants, Roman Catholic churches, grocery stores, churches, clothing stores, and other shops.

The Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935 followed the Tydings-McDuffie Act (known officially as the Philippine Independence Act), which was enacted on March 24, 1934. The Tydings-McDuffie Act established the Philippines as a commonwealth and provided for self-government, to be followed by Filipino independence after ten years. Actual independence was delayed two years by World War II. The law was passed after Philippine political activist Manuel L. Quezon (after whom the Philippines’ former capital city was named) led a Philippine Independence Mission toWashington, D.C., to advocate for his country’s independence.

In a bow to the nativist lobby, the Tydings- McDuffie Act also reclassified all Filipinos living in the United States as aliens under immigration law. Filipinos thus no longer were allowed to freely immigrate into the United States. As aliens, Filipinos also were barred fromowning land or businesses in the United States. In 1943, however, they were allowed to lease land, much of which had been owned by Japanese Americans before they were sent to internment camps in 1942. The act also imposed a fifty-person-per-year limit on Filipino immigration to the United States. The quota was unrealistically low, and immigration continued at levels much higher than the legal quota.

Results of the Law

The Filipino Repatriation Act provided free one-way transportation only for single adults. Such grants were supplemented in some instances by private fund-raising (such as that of the California Emergency Relief Association) that paid passage for Filipino children who had been born in the United States so that they could return with their parents. Both the Tydings-McDuffie and the Filipino Repatriation acts halted reunification of families under U.S. immigration law, forcing many to remain separate for a number of years.

The Filipino Repatriation Act was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940, after 2,190 Filipinos had been returned to the Philippines. Filipino immigration to the United States continued, with a resurgence in the late 1960’s. The large number of Filipino workers outside the country has even helped to spawn an acronym, OFWs (overseas Filipino workers), and a political movement, Gawad Kalinga, which has provided a sense of community and basic services to millions of expatriate Filipinos worldwide. Many Filipino immigrants have worked with the U.S. military in war zones, from World War II to the Iraq War of 2003, earning broad-based support for their continued immigration to the United States.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading

  • Lawsin, Emily Porcincula. “Pensionados, Paisanos, and Pinoys: An Analysis of the Filipino Student Bulletin, 1922-1939.” Filipino American National Historical Society Journal 4 (1996). History of early Filipino university-student communities in the United States. 
  • Martinez, Eric V. “The Anti-Filipino Watsonville Race Riots: 1930.” Filipino American National Historical Journal 4 (1996). Labor-organizing tensions and cultural differences led to riots that provoked some of the nativist sentiment that was reflected in the Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935. 
  • “Philippine Flop.” Time, October 3, 1938. Reporting on the Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935 indicating that 1,900 Filipinos had returned to the Philippines in three years. 
  • Stern, Jennifer. The Filipino Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Wide-ranging history of Filipinos in the United States, including provisions affecting immigration. 

See also: Anti-Filipino violence; Asian immigrants; Congress, U.S.; Deportation; Filipino immigrants; Great Depression; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration law; Japanese American internment; Luce-Celler Bill of 1946.

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