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Divided Loyalties 

Forced to choose between native ties and the American Dream, Filipinos like S.F. court clerk Rene Pascual are fighting for dual citizenship

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
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Rene Pascual stands expectantly against the wall of a darkened hotel banquet hall, sipping a glass of whiskey in nervous anticipation. The lengthy four-hour program of the glitzy Northern California Filipino Media Awards is dragging to an end, but Pascual's heart races. In a few minutes, he will receive a "surprise" award.

Pascual shifts his weight from one shiny shoe to another, anxiously flattening his colorful tie. At the urging of his wife, he sets down his whiskey glass in preparation for his stroll to the stage.

The MC calls out his name. As Pascual approaches the stage, the MC hands him a 3-foot trophy, an award for organizing the Biggest Filipino Social Event of the Year in 2001 -- a reception Pascual helped the consul general put together for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in November.

Pascual absorbs the limelight for a few minutes, reveling in the attention. An upbeat personality, Pascual has the attributes natural to a politician: an affinity for the spotlight, a gleaming grin, well-styled hair, and the ability to swiftly form alliances and enemies. In candid moments, he entertains the idea that if he had never emigrated from the Philippines, he might have served in public office, like most of his former law school classmates.

But Pascual, a 51-year-old immigrant who works as a court clerk for the City and County of San Francisco, is not positioned for politics in America; he lives out his impulses in less direct ways. The reception for President Arroyo was one of them, and Pascual was able to lobby for two Philippine Senate bills that will have great impact on the 2 million Filipino-Americans nationwide -- an effort that has become a passionate cause for Pascual.

One bill would allow dual citizenship. The other would set up an absentee-ballot mechanism for the estimated 6 million to 10 million overseas Filipinos worldwide to vote in national elections -- which could significantly alter the tenor of Philippine politics.

Both bills are enormously important to Pascual and to many of the 400,000 Filipinos living in the Bay Area. If they pass, they will alleviate a tangle of economic, social, and personal issues that immigrants grapple with when they are forced to choose between the United States and the country of their birth.

These bills are part of a growing international phenomenon of "long-distance nationalism," experts say. "A number of countries offer dual citizenship, and the list keeps expanding," says anthropology professor Nina Glick Shiller of the University of New Hampshire. "You can reclaim your Irish citizenship, and the French have had dual citizenship forever. With the latest upsurge, now it's the poorer countries doing it.

"It's because of a new period of globalization. Most of the political decisions are made in the U.S., and if you want to influence what happens in your country, then you need influence in countries like the U.S through long-distance nationalism. [Countries] like the Philippines need it [dual citizenship] because they need remittances and the political clout of citizens abroad."

Dual citizenship can also have profound personal repercussions -- as Pascual can attest. For the good-humored father of two, fulfilling the American Dream for his family has meant sacrificing personal ambitions of practicing law and perhaps running for public office in the Philippines. Dual citizenship would let him keep those ambitions alive, and lobbying for it has become his mission.

The Arroyo event, which attracted 1,400 "movers and shakers" in suits or sequined dresses, was one of his greatest achievements. Back at his banquet table again, Pascual proudly passes around his giant trophy among his wife and friends. Music blares in the background and Pascual, suddenly in a jovial mood, begins bouncing to the beat in something of a victory dance. It was at the Arroyo event, after all, that Pascual personally handed the president two resolutions calling for the passage of the Senate bills.

As Arroyo received the sheaf of papers, she told Pascual pointedly, "This is a done deal." They became priority bills soon after her return to the Philippines.

Pascual was thrilled with the news. For him, the conflicts of being Filipino in America were resolving themselves. "Your dream is to live in America, raise a family, and then in your twilight years, go back to your country," he says excitedly. "That is satisfying. And if you cannot go back and exercise your rights as a Filipino, it is an empty feeling because there is still a blank in your heart. With dual citizenship, you can have full satisfaction."Talk of dual citizenship has floated around the Philippines since the 1900s, when the fertile and resource-laden islands became a U.S. colony. At the turn of the last century, one Philippine political party argued that since the country had become an American territory, Filipinos were entitled to dual citizenship and should receive privileges such as American passports.

The U.S. government ignored the idea.

Since then, dual citizenship and absentee voting have been popular topics of conversation; rumors of possible legislation spread as easily as celebrity gossip in some Filipino circles.

Around the world, groups and individuals like Pascual lobby Philippine politicians through e-mail campaigns, faxes, phone calls, and personal visits. The bills will affect millions of people, including 800,000 Filipinos in California.

The bill currently moving through the Senate extends citizenship to anyone born in the Philippines despite naturalization status, and to anyone whose parents are Filipino citizens.

According to the bill, dual citizenship would be automatic, unless a Filipino citizen renounces his nationality in front of a Philippine official. The bill is worded this way to ensure that American citizens, and those in other countries who must renounce their country of origin during the Oath of Allegiance, can become dual Philippine citizens. Only elected officials or military officers in another country are not eligible, to eliminate concerns of conflicting loyalties.

Dual citizenship addresses several practical concerns, such as how long Filipino-Americans can stay on the island when they visit and how much land they can own.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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