Nick Eusebio is giving up on his American dream and going home.
Along with thousands of other Filipino American veterans, the 74-year-old Eusebio will be allowed to collect Supplemental Security Income in the Philippines, thanks to a bill signed this month by President Clinton.
"I miss my family very much," said Eusebio, a San Jose resident for the past six years. "When I think of them, I cry. There's only the three of us. My wife, my daughter. I must go back."
Eusebio was one of more than 20,000 Filipino veterans of World War II allowed to come to the United States and become instant citizens as a result of a 1990 law signed by then-President George Bush, fulfilling what the veterans feel was a promise made more than a half-century ago.
For most of this decade, the Filipino American vets have been hoping the American government would take the next step and treat them as U.S. vets when it came to health, pension and burial benefits. Although their cause has gained substantial support in Congress, the fight has been a losing battle.
So in some ways, Clinton's signing ceremony represented a bittersweet victory. Although thousands will be allowed to return to the Philippines and live out their lives in dignity and relative comfort, many are still angry that Congress has never given them the full recognition they think they deserve.
"While we commend the veterans who fought for this legislation, which at least does something, it falls far short of the real solution," said Jon Melegrito, executive director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations.
The issue is rooted in a July 1941 decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to draft all organized military forces of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, then an American colony.
In 1946, when the Philippines gained independence, Congress passed the Rescission Act, appropriating $200 million for the Philippine armed forces but making the Philippines responsible for paying most veterans benefits. It did not follow through on what many Filipino veterans say was a 1942 commitment by Congress to allow them to become naturalized U.S. citizens as a reward for their service.
Most Filipino vets say they always considered themselves part of the U.S. military. But opponents in Congress, led by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), argue that the records of Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the War Department show no intent to offer Filipinos full U.S. benefits.
Stump, who had repeatedly bottled up the bill in his committee, contends that most Filipinos who were under the command of the U.S. armed forces were considered members of the Philippine Army.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it would cost $4.5 billion over five years to grant full benefits to all Filipino American veterans. Advocates for the veterans say the actual figure is lower but argue that equity--not cost--is the real issue.
Although the vets jumped at the chance to come to the United States after Bush signed the 1990 law, most Filipino vets ended up living in tiny apartments or six or seven to a bedroom.
Almost all the vets live on some form of assistance--federal Supplemental Security Income, general assistance, Medicaid. Many cannot afford to visit their families in the Philippines. And because many are welfare recipients, they are ineligible under U.S. immigration law to bring over their wives and children.
Eusebio, a former guerrilla who earned a degree in accounting after the war, said he moved to the United States in 1993 at age 68 with the dream of giving his daughter, now an unemployed bank worker, a better life. She and his wife were denied visas, so he now lives alone in a rented room in a house with other people.
Based on surveys, lobbyists told Congress that about 7,000 of the remaining 17,000 Filipino American veterans in the United States will return to their homeland. Because the bill signed into law by Clinton calls for paying 75 percent of current SSI payments if the vets move to the Philippines--and because the vets will lose their Medicaid benefits when they leave--the measure is expected to save U.S. taxpayers $7 million annually.
But it's a good deal for the veterans. Eric Lachica, executive director of the veterans' coalition that lobbied for the SSI bill, said the $380 monthly SSI check the vets will receive in the Philippines is "equivalent to 15,000 pesos, more than a college professor makes."