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From NAIA to SFO, two Filipino airport dramas

05:54 PM November 17, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—Two major airports familiar to Filipinos – the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the San Francisco International Airport – recently became the settings for two Filipino dramas.

Both involved Filipinos accused of different forms of “cheating.”

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One involved a former president who showed up at NAIA in a wheelchair and wearing a contraption one wouldn’t typically see on the head of a former head of state.

The other involved a young man, who quietly showed up at SFO with his luggage, a one-way ticket to Manila, as he prepared to go home — and leave home at the same time.

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It’s tough not to be amused and troubled by the NAIA drama featuring no less than former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, perhaps the only president in the world to be caught on tape in what appeared to be a brazen attempt at vote rigging. (‘Garci, will I win by a million votes?’)

The charges are certainly serious and so are the worries that the Arroyos may be trying to escape. But the Arroyos appeared to have played their cards well in that fiasco.

They rushed to their airport after getting a go-signal from the Supreme Court, rolling the ex-president in a wheelchair, a metal brace around her head, and a yaya pleading, “Maawa naman kayo.”

Stopping them was a gamble for Aquino’s government. And, in many ways, I agree with those who thought Team Noynoy fumbled yet again. There was a court order. They didn’t like it. But that’s the way a democratic system work.

Yes democracy Philippine-style is extremely flawed – which is why you should aggravate the flaws but messing around with basic legal principles.

Yes, the charges against Arroyo are extremely serious, highlighted by alleged ties to a family accused of committing one of the most heinous massacres in history.

The charges are so serious that many understandably saw the Arroyo at NAIA, not as a feeble, possible ailing woman in her 60s — but as Hannibal Lecter in drag.

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But how in the world did Team Noynoy allow itself to be outmaneuvered in that fiasco – to be made to look like a fool and bully at the same time?

Why would you let a leader who’s reviled and denounced for the most stunning allegations of rampant corruption and abuse of power in the post-Marcos era be turned into a martyr?

Which is why I found myself following the GMA saga with frustration. It was Philippine elite politics at its worst.

But that wasn’t the case with the other airport drama at SFO.

JB Librojo joined the list of Filipino immigrants caught in an immigration legal quagmire. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15. His parents had applied for political asylum, a process that takes years.

Meantime, JB went to school, including college, studied biology at San Francisco State University, graduated and then began a career.

His employer endorsed him giving his case to become a legal resident a boost. But when an asylum petition based on his parents’ original case was denied, he found himself in a legal limbo.

In the eyes of some in government and the anti-immigrant forces, JB, who is now 31 and has spent most of his life in the U.S., doesn’t belong here.

He didn’t choose to be in this situation. He was a kid when his parents decided to come to the U.S.

Furthermore, he’s been an exemplary member of the Bay Area community. He studied hard, earning a degree in biology at San Francisco State University. And then he began a new career. He pays taxes and obeys laws.

Other Filipinos have found themselves in his situation, kids who fell into a legal limbo because they became “illegal” due to the decisions of their parents. There’s Chris Camat and Jose Antonio Vargas who fought for the right to stay in the U.S., the country they call home.

Librojo’s experience is different in some ways.

Camat was a rising amateur boxer who went on to represent the Philippines at the Athens Olympics. Vargas is a well known journalist.

On the other hand, Librojo has led what would generally be considered a low key but fruitful life. He works as a dental assistant. His dream is to become a nurse. His wife, who is in the country on a working visa, works as a teacher.

And through the years, he said, he never went into hiding. He pushed for his case out in the open. He never tried to cut corners.

“I was trying to do everything right, the legal way,” he told me. “But I’m still getting deported — even if I am not a criminal.”

On Saturday, as he stood with his luggage at SFO, he said, he simply felt lost. He was returning to his homeland. But he was also leaving the place he now calls home.

“For me, I felt that whatever happened I just had to accept it.”

But unexpectedly, Librojo got a temporary reprieve from his legal nightmare. Immigration officials told him he didn’t have to leave.

The partial victory was due in part to the efforts of Filipino Americans and other immigration rights activists belonging to such groups as the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and Change.org.

But his fight isn’t over.

On Wednesday, JB told me, immigration authorities told him to be ready again to leave the country as early as Monday.

“I already unpacked,” JB said. “I have to pack again on Saturday or Sunday.”

But maybe the community can rally to help him once again.

(For information on JB’s case go to www.helpjb.org)

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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