Monday, February 19, 2007

The Final Battle for Equity

The Filipino Veterans Equity Bill finally got its long-awaited hearing day in the US House Veterans Affairs Committee on February 15, eve of the 61st anniversary of the day the US Congress passed the infamous Rescission Act excluding Filipino WW II veterans of the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) from receiving US military benefits.

At the committee hearing chaired by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), 15 witnesses testified in support of the equity bill that will provide approximately 20,000 surviving Filipino WW II veterans with a monthly US military disability pension.

Among those who testified at the hearing were Franco Arcebal, 83, a former Philippine guerrilla intelligence officer in WWII who serves as vice-president of the American Coalition for the Filipino Veterans (ACFV), and Alma Quitans Kern, chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), which initiated the formation of the 20-organization National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE) last December 7.

As veterans affairs committee chair, appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Filner has fast-tracked the equity bill, holding the hearing just two weeks after re-filing it as HR 760 on January 31, with Republican Congressman Darrell Issa (California) among the co-sponsors.

"We're going to try to take this up in committee within a few weeks,” Rep. Filner said, “and I would like to take it on the floor (for a vote) before Bataan Day (April 9)."

At the hearing, Rep. John Boozman (R-Arkansas) raised the question of whether the US could afford to pay the full $880 maximum veterans monthly pension to poor veterans with non-service related disability who served a minimum of 90 days in the US military during a wartime period.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) supported the proposal of Rep. Lane Evans (D-Illinois) allocating a $200 monthly pension for veterans in the Philippines which he said was “reasonable” given the cost of living in the Philippines and the fiscal constraints caused by the US deficit and the growing expense of the Iraq war.

Whether the Filipino veterans should accept anything less than the maximum amount to which they are entitled has been a source of contention among the various veterans support groups in the past. All the groups agree, however, that the issue now is passage of the veterans equity bill and that the issue of the amount of the pension to be paid to the veterans should be determined later in the appropriations committees of the Congress.

In reply to a question, Philippine Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Carlos D. Sorreta said that there are only 20,000 WW II veterans still alive today from the 472,000 vets who originally served under the USAFFE. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) provided a higher figure of 22,000, with about 15,000 in the Philippines and 7,000 in the US.

In his testimony, Sorreta urged the committee to pass the bill "on behalf of a nation that has stood by yours in the name of liberty and freedom in World War II, in the uncertain decades after, and in facing today's new and grave challenges."

House approval of the Equity bill will provide momentum for its Senate counterpart sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) who refilled the bill as S 57 when the 110th US Congress opened on January 4. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the new chairman of the committee on veterans affairs, promised a senate hearing in April.

“We will get it in and we will get it passed this year,” Sen. Inouye said. Sen. Akaka also reintroduced his Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Bill which would exempt children of Filipino WW II veterans from the numerical limitations on immigrant visas. Sen. Akaka’s bill “seeks to reunite the naturalized Filipino veterans with their sons and daughters, many of whom have been on the immigration waiting lists for years.

In the 109th Congress, Akaka’s bill was included as an amendment to the Omnibus Immigration Reform Bill after it passed the Senate with a vote of 99-0 last year. The Omnibus bill was not enacted into law, however, because the House and Senate could not agree on a compromise bill.

Before the Thursday house committee hearing, members of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, led by ret. Maj. General Antonio Taguba (author of the Abu Ghraib report), visited the House offices of veterans’ affairs committee members to thank them for their support of the equity and reunification bills and give them Valentine’s Day roses.

It has been 61 years of struggle for the Filipino WW II veterans to rescind the Rescission Act. The veterans in dwindling number hope that the equity bill will finally pass the US Congress this year.

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