By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS – In what many consider a play for the Filipino-American vote, the Obama White House has created an agency to review the applications for benefits for thousands of aging Filipino World War II veterans.
Chris Lu, the White House cabinet secretary and co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, on Thursday announced the launch of an Inter-agency Working Group that will take a second look at the benefits claims for the veterans.
In 2009, among his first acts as president, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, among others, provided compensation for eligible Filipino veterans who fought alongside Americans against the Japanese in World War II.
Eligible veterans who were U.S. citizens received a one-time payment of $15,000 while eligible veterans who are not U.S. citizens receive a one-time payment of $9,000.
About 18,000 of the veterans, now in the 70s and 80s, received the benefits, but an estimated 24,000 more have been denied.
The agency will look again into these claims and determine if the applicants qualify or not, the White House said.
“The (agency) will help ensure that all applications receive thorough and fair review,” Lu said in a statement. ” This is part of the Obama Administration’s ongoing efforts to honor the contributions of all veterans in their service to our country.”
In Nevada, where early voting begins Saturday, Oct. 20, the announcement was widely cheered within the Filipino-American community, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate hailed it as an indication of the administration’s advocacy on behalf of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“It is another important step forward in making sure all the veterans who fought bravely alongside American troops on the battlefields of the South Pacific receive the compensation and recognition they earned and deserve,” said Democrat Shelley Berkley, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
” I was proud to support the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation provision and to co-sponsor the Filipino Veterans Equality Act, and as the daughter of a World War II veteran, I will keep fighting until all Filipino veterans get the benefits they are entitled to,” she said.
Her opponent, Republican Dean Heller, has earned the endorsement of a group of Filipino veterans in Las Vegas for proposing a bill that will do a similar review of the claims.
“This is good news obviously,” said Rozita Lee, a leader in the Filipino-American community and member of the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“Every time something is done for the benefit of our Filipino veterans, who have long deserved recognition and benefits, is indicative of a grateful nation,” she said.
According to the 2010 census, there are about 3.4 million Filipinos in the U.S., second only to the Chinese as the largest Asian group, and a crucial demographic in the Nov. 6 election.
The largest concentrations of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have traditionally been found in California, Hawaii, Illinois, and the Greater New York and Washington D.C. areas.
However, Nevada and Virginia, two of the hotly contested battleground or swing states in this year’s election, are now home to the fastest-growing Filipino-American populations.
With about 98,000, Filipino-Americans comprise the largest Asian-American population in Nevada, growing by 116 percent from 2000 to 2010.
In Las Vegas, where about 30,000 Filipino-Americans live, a concerted voter-registration effort has been launched, spearheaded by the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Among the voting sites of Saturday’s early voting schedule is Seafood City on Parkway Boulevard in Las Vegas, a favorite mall for Filipino-Americans, and also one of the sites for the voter registration drives.
Voting will be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ballots and election materials in Tagalog are available upon request.
In Virginia, there are more 400,000 Filipinos, constituting the largest Filipino-American community in the southeastern region of the US, according to Naomi Estaris of the South Corps Coalition Committee for Fil-Am Vote in Virginia Beach.
The White House announcement is considered an early Christmas gift to veterans and veteran officials who have fought for recognition since the end of the Second World War.
While thousands have already received benefits, thousands more are waiting, which becomes more dire as the aging veterans are dying everyday.
Delfin Lorenzana, head of the Office of Veterans Affairs at the Philippine Embass, said in a statement to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other Philippine newspapers that the disqualification issues stemmed from the implementing guidelines approved in 2011 by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He said the guidelines required certification from the National Personnel Records Center that the names of veteran-claimants appear in both the Roster of Troops and the Discharge List prepared by the US Army at the end of the Second World War.
“Unfortunately, the claims of a large number of Filipino veterans were not processed because their names appear only in one list or the other but not both,” Lorenzana said.
“What we are requesting the US government is for them to consider all sources of records and not just the two lists,” he added.
Lorenzana noted the disqualified veterans made up 56 percent of the 43,083 surviving veterans who filed their claims under the compensation fund.
He said that so far, a total of $223.7 million from the $265-million compensation fund had been released to 18,698 Filipino veterans.
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