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

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.

Pascual: Being an expatriate leaves "a blank in your heart."
Paolo Vescia
Pascual: Being an expatriate leaves "a blank in your heart."
Pascual: Being an expatriate leaves "a blank in your heart."
Paolo Vescia
Pascual: Being an expatriate leaves "a blank in your heart."

"You will always have a special part of your heart for where you came from," Pascual says. "You are nostalgic to go back, and you hope it won't be a hassle. If I go back as a Filipino citizen, there is no limit to how long I can stay."

But bills introduced in the past have languished, partially because they lacked political or logistical support.

Absentee voting, for example, was mandated in the 1986 Philippine Constitution but has yet to be implemented. Senate staffers say logistics and lack of resources make it difficult to push the bill that would make it a reality. They also admit that some less-than-forthright politicians see it as a threat to their power, since overseas Filipino voters could swing an entire election and are not likely to be intimidated or bought.

Meanwhile, philosophical questions of allegiance and loyalty have stalled real gains for dual citizenship. But in Pascual's mind, at least, these arguments are outdated.

"There is only a conflict [of allegiance] when there is a war," Pascual insists. "That is precisely why, in 1939, the Commonwealth prevented dual citizenship. The argument then was because if there is a war, who would you be loyal to? Who would you fight for? Now that is an academic argument, because who the hell would engage in a war with America? It is no longer an issue."

Both bills are finally poised for passage before the end of 2002 because of one simple reason: economics.

Millions of Filipinos are forced to work abroad because the Philippine government, dogged with a history of colonialism, corruption, and cronyism, fails to create enough jobs for all its skilled workers.

In the past four decades, workers have fled to foreign countries for jobs. They have also kept the Philippine economy afloat, wiring home an average of $3,000 each to their native country every year, a figure that makes up between 5 and 8 percent of the Philippines' gross national product.

The bills are seen as appeasement to the many workers who have been uprooted from their homes. "We believe strongly that the [Philippine] government is just doing this [supporting these bills] to get more money," says Jay Mendoza of the Philip Vera Cruz Justice Project, a Bay Area group dedicated to worker and immigrant rights. "It's a two-edged thing. The general Filipino community wants to have closer relations with the Philippines, and that's good. But why are they forced to go abroad in the first place? In general, we believe a labor export policy that forces millions of people overseas for work is a flawed way to organize a national economy. There's a political intention behind it. That's what we're trying to point out."

Pascual, too, is well aware of the economic and political factors. "Why does the country float?" Pascual says. "Because of us, and the politicians realize that. It's about time that we are given these privileges. It's payback time."

Pascual is convinced that the economic and political climate will ensure the passage of both bills. Senate staffers say that though there are concerns and questions, there is no public opposition to either bill by any members of the Philippine Congress.

Even so, the absentee-ballot bill has a 75 percent chance of passing, according to Joel Rocamora, director and lobbyist for the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila. The dual-citizenship bill has a smaller chance, he says. The concerns are the same as they have been in the past.

Rocamora's organization supports both bills and will continue to pressure the government to pass them because it believes that both issues will elevate the Philippine government to a cleaner, more transparent level.

Rocamora, though, wonders whether Filipinos -- particularly in the Bay Area -- have placed too much emphasis on issues abroad. "For Filipinos in the Bay Area, I always say to my friends there, "For God's sake, the potential political clout of Filipinos in the Bay Area is not even 10 percent realized,'" he says. "Absentee voting, dual citizenship [are] good because we want Filipinos in the U.S. to help us with what we are doing here. But at the same time, you have in the Bay Area 400,000 Filipinos, and as long as they are there, their leaders should get into local government and assist the Filipinos in America."

Rene Pascual carries a brown, faux-leather folder with him almost everywhere. To banquets. To receptions and forums. To work. The folder holds documentation of Pascual's lobbying work for Philippine dual citizenship and absentee voting. There are so many draft resolutions, newspaper articles, and hastily scribbled notes in the folder that it bulges and refuses to stay shut of its own volition. Pascual straps rubber bands across the length and width of the folder to ensure its sanctity.

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