Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pinoys in Saipan decry US denial of typhoon aid claims

Filipinos and other foreign nationals in Saipan are lamenting the denial of their request for US assistance to help rebuild their partially or totally damaged houses when Typhoon Soudelor ravaged the tiny American island on Aug. 2 and 3.

Many of them also lost their belongings to Soudelor.  

The typhoon devastated much of the island that US President Barack Obama had to declare Saipan and the rest of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) a federal disaster area to free up federal resources and help with relief and recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the applications of many overseas Filipino workers and other foreign workers with so-called CW-1 permits.

“It is really very unfortunate and I am dismayed that people like us, CW workers, are excluded from the FEMA assistance program,” Carlito Marquez, from Sipocot, Camarines Sur, told GMA News Online.

Marquez, a trade technician at a utilities agency in Saipan, has been calling for the inclusion of legal foreign workers or CW-1 permit holders in the FEMA assistance program in the wake of a natural calamity.

“Where is humanity in this case?” Marquez asked, adding that the typhoon affected almost everyone on Saipan regardless of their immigration status, race, ethnicity or nationality.

In some cases, the FEMA decision seemed arbitrary.

For example, there are Filipinos with CW-1 permits and do not have US citizen children but were granted individual assistance by FEMA.  

“Maybe it depends on the FEMA inspector,” said a Filipino CW-1 permit holder who lost their whole house to the typhoon and got a check from FEMA for the damage days after the inspection of her rented house.

There are also those who have US citizen children and typhoon-damaged houses but were still denied FEMA individual assistance.

“It’s disheartening to know we won’t get help from FEMA even if our house got damaged by the typhoon.  Our roofs were blown off.  I have six children who were born here and are therefore U.S. citizens; I am an LPR (lawful permanent resident status or ‘green card’ holder).  We will appeal the denial of our application,” Ronnie Doca, from Solana, Cagayan, told GMA News Online.

Another Filipino CW-1 permit holder said his application for FEMA assistance to repair the house was denied purportedly because the house wasn’t totally damaged.  

But he said the damage included torn up dirty kitchen, restroom and garage, but he said others whose houses received less damage got FEMA aid.

“We will appeal (the FEMA denial of our application),” radio personality RV Caberos said.

CNMI seeks USCIS help

Another major sentiment among those applying for typhoon assistance is a lack of clear information from FEMA itself as to whether legal foreign workers such as CW-1 permit holders qualify for FEMA aid, early on.

CNMI Governor Eloy S. Inos and the CNMI’s delegate to the US Congress, Gregorio “Kilili” C. Sablan (Ind-MP), asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to help foreign nationals with CW-1 permits receive individual assistance from FEMA.
USCIS is the agency under the US Department of Homeland Security that deals with immigration benefits.

“When disasters strike our islands, what is clear to see is that every person, every resident in the CNMI is equally affected no matter where they come from, what their economic status is, nationality, age and so on. This is why Congressman Sablan and I agree and have taken steps to ensure that all residents in the CNMI can be considered as eligible to receive federal assistance,” the CNMI governor said.

What FEMA says

Days later, FEMA federal coordinating officer Stephen DeBlasio Sr. issued a statement that essentially clarified that CW-1 permit holders are not eligible for cash assistance from FEMA.

This is due to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed by the US Congress in 1996.

DeBlasio said FEMA individual assistance is available to US citizens, non-citizen nationals, and “qualified aliens” who have disaster-related damages on Saipan.

The majority of “qualified aliens” are those with legal permanent residence -- commonly called “green cards.”  But there are other types of statuses that fit the definition of qualified alien.

“The definition of qualified alien, by law, does not include temporary workers living on the island,” the FEMA official said.

But any applicant, including a CW-1 permit holder who has a qualifying person — such as a minor child who is a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national or qualified alien — in their household may be eligible for FEMA assistance, FEMA said.

Regardless of worker classification or immigration status, however, FEMA said all survivors are eligible for “short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief programs.”

These include assistance from voluntary agencies; FEMA community service programs such as disaster legal services and crisis counseling; emergency assistance such as emergency food and water; and emergency food stamps.

The CNMI governor also relayed this information to the affected foreign workers.

But still, foreign workers whose houses were demolished by the typhoon are asking for FEMA reconsideration.

Moreover, some typhoon victims who are considered not eligible to receive FEMA cash assistance but received it anyway can be required to return it.

FEMA also said even when applicants are found ineligible for certain assistance because of their immigration status, FEMA will discuss their unmet needs and refer them to programs run by voluntary organizations that may be able to provide assistance.

Most foreign workers do not own houses in Saipan but only rent from landlords who can claim FEMA assistance for damaged property.

Filipino workers in Saipan, meanwhile, have received donations of food, drinking water, clothing, toiletries and hygiene products, rechargeable fans and other items from different civic groups and individuals near and far. —KBK, GMA News

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