December 17, 2009

Ernesto Cinco’s belongings compete for space in the single San Francisco room he calls home. His coat rack is piled with too many coats; his clothes lay strewn on cardboard boxes. The bed frame doubles as a sunglass rack and beside the bed plastic flowers share counter space with toothpaste and Tupperware, surrounding a box that contains his late wife’s ashes. He points to her photograph on the wall. “I am alone,” he says.

An 88-year-old Filipino World War II veteran, Cinco came to the U.S. following a 1990 amendment to the Immigration Act that granted citizenship to those who had served honorably with the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines and the Far East during WWII. Between 17,000 and 20,000 Filipino veterans subsequently came to the U.S. They arrived hopeful that citizenship here would finally qualify them for the veteran benefits they had been promised during the war but had never received because the 1946 Rescission Act barred Filipinos from those benefits.  

Like his veterano compatriots, Cinco found that his U.S. citizenship didn’t qualify him for his veteran pension. He faced a daily struggle here, where having enough money to rent a hotel room was never a guarantee. After more than six decades, Cinco is among an estimated 18,000 remaining Filipino veterans who have received some long-awaited recognition, but for many of them it is still a far cry from equity.

Legislation passed last February grants lump-sum payments of $15,000 to U.S. citizens who served in the Philippines during World War II and $9,000 to veterans still residing in the Philippines. In addition, H.R. 1 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—President Obama’s stimulus bill—reversed the 1946 Rescission Act. However, the lump-sum payment includes a “quit claim” provision denying any further reparations once the payment has been accepted. The veterans will effectively release their claim to full entitlement—lifetime veteran pensions.

Some Filipino veterans who’ve filed for their payments are also now receiving government letters citing loyalty issues. The letters from the Department of Veterans Affairs claim the veterans are suspected of having aided the Japanese during the war (even though they received honorable discharges) and the government is requiring veterans to give detailed written accounts of their activities during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

Another filing nightmare, advocates say, is that many itinerant veterans are wrongfully losing entitlement to their Supplemental Security Income benefits, a small stipend they need to meet basic necessities. This is making veterans hold off on filing, mistakenly believing they must choose between SSI benefits or the H.R. 1 payment.

H.R. 1 states that the $15,000 is not going to be counted as income and that veterans can continue to receive SSI,” noted Luisa Antonio, executive director of the Veterans Equity Center, which advocates for Filipino WWII veterans. “When the veterans receive the letter threatening that their SSI might be terminated, they’re panicking. A lot of them are afraid to claim. Once they lose SSI, they lose healthcare, and a lot of the veterans are not just old, they are sick.”

Antonio complains that it’s not her agency’s job to educate SSI administration staff, as she and her team have found themselves doing. “Bigger institutions like the Department of Human Services that administers SSI have the resources and are supposed to train their staff,” she said. “Unfortunately, they see don’t these vets on a daily basis and do not know what’s going on and do not understand the law.”

Jon Melegrito, cochair for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity, an organization that mobilizes social justice groups to lobby for Filipino veterans, notes that the fight for recognition and veteran benefits has been long and damaging for many of the vets. “They came to the U.S. expecting that once they were naturalized, they would be treated the same way as U.S. veterans. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Many became homeless in San Francisco, where most of them landed. Many died alone; many continue to struggle, not only financially, but psychologically.”


Like Cinco, Regaldo Baldonado was near his retirement years when he arrived in the U.S. in 1987. Though he had been an engineer in the Philippines, he found work in San Francisco wherever he could, washing dishes in hotels and landing other odd jobs before settling with a position as a security officer.

“I was about 60 years old already,” Baldonado says, “and when you’re 60 and over, the chances of getting a good job are kind of nil. I thought, ‘I can have a good job as a professional engineer,’ but they [required] me to get another [degree]—at my age.”

Baldonado was 15-years-old when he volunteered in the guerilla movement in Laguna, serving under the Philippine American Third Army Core from 1941 to 1945. “Because I love my country and I love the Americans, I was thrilled to join. We were under the American government at the time, we had the American and Filipino flags in the classroom, and we sang songs for the love of country, so it is embedded in us that we love America in the ‘PI.’ But what happened?”

Making $12 an hour as a security officer in San Francisco, Baldonado sent a portion of his income to his children in the Philippines, keeping what he could to survive. Today, three of Baldonado’s eight children are with him in the U.S., though he’s petitioned to have all eight join him here. It took 17 years for the first two visas to be issued and waiting on visas for married children can take even longer.

But Baldonado is luckier than some. Cinco no longer knows how many great-grandchildren he has, and like many other Filipino veterans, he’s spent the past 19 years isolated from family, waiting for justice in a harsh reality. “At least, in the Philippines they have a much more consistent support system,” Melegrito said. “They can rely on relatives.”

Cinco, who was imprisoned for four years in a Japanese war camp, arrived in the U.S. in his late 70s and was diagnosed with a heart disease that disables him to this day. Before knowing about his medical condition, he joined forces with other veterans, lobbying with them in Washington, D.C. before a panel of congress members and senators. “We are trying to do everything we can to tell America to give us our benefits,” he said. Cinco still hopes for a monthly pension.
    
The veterans were able to plead their case with support from ally groups including the Japanese American Citizen League, Veterans for Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. This broad coalition mobilized grassroots effort, raised funds and influenced the legislative agenda in Congress on the Filipino veterans’ behalf.

“Our voice is still far from being taken seriously unless we join with other groups,” Melegrito said. “We built relationships with representatives and senators like Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Bob Filner of California and demonstrated that we can move legislation in both houses of Congress with community support and a conscious, organized grassroots effort.”

The Veterans Equity Center, which is based in San Francisco, has been hard at work since 1997. In addition to helping Filipino veterans find affordable housing, qualify for food allotments, file petitions and claims and connect with much-needed access to health services, the center has formed coalitions among community members and university students nationwide to bring attention to the Filipino veterans’ issue. Advocates here have also led letter-writing campaigns and Congressional lobby visits, said Juslyn Manalo, a community worker at the center. As a result of these efforts, Filipino veterans were qualified to get medical attention from Veterans Administration hospitals in 2002.

Manalo and many other veterano advocates believe the $15,000 and $9,000 lump-sum payments are simply not enough. “It does not provide equal treatment—the lifetime pension benefits that they deserve after 63 years of waiting to be treated equal to their U.S. counterparts,” Manalo said.

Melegrito is also frustrated by the different payments according to residency. U.S. citizens can receive $15,000 while veterans still residing in the Philippines qualify only for $9,000. “To us, that’s already inequitable. They should be given the same amount [as Filipino U.S. citizens]. They risked their lives in the same battlefield, shared the same sacrifices, so the disparity in the way the benefits were given is also unfair.”

Baldonado still tries to understand the reasoning behind America’s failure to act. “I do not know why they do not want to fully compensate Filipino Americans compared to other nations who helped them. If you live 10 years, $15,000 is very low. You’re expecting $1,500 a month, the regular pension of a soldier who served in the war. But $15,000, that’s only 15 months at $1,000.”

Approximately 10 Filipino veterans die each day and time is clearly running out for this elderly population. In addition to helping the veteranos claim their lump-sum payments within the one-year filing period without losing the SSI benefits they are still entitled to, the Veterans Equity Center is continuing to fight for full recognition. Under the GI Bill, veterans receive not only a monthly, lifelong pension, but also access to education, housing and other benefits.

Advocates with the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity now plan to speed up the Family Reunification Act, fast-tracking visa applications so veterans can see their children and grandchildren much sooner. “We want our children to know what happened and know what was done for them,” said Melegrito. “So even if we don’t achieve full equity, they will know that the Filipino community tried everything we could to fight for justice for them so that this will not happen again, not just to us, but other groups as well.”



Renee Macalino Rutledge has been a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She’s been published in Filipinas Magazine, Oakland Magazine, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Parents’ Press and others. She’s been nominated for the New California and New American Media awards for investigative reporting on Filipino youth culture and access to medical care by elderly Filipinos.