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

Pascual says he didn't think twice about taking the job, even though it was so far removed from lawyering. "It was a minimum-wage job," he says. "But I assured myself that I would have medical insurance. I grabbed at it. It was a life-or-death situation."

Three months later, on the day that his insurance kicked in, Pascual's family flew in from the Philippines. Pascual set up an appointment with an infant neurosurgeon for the day after his son arrived in America.

The surgery prolonged their son's life for 14 years, though he never learned how to walk. "He just stayed in bed," Pascual says, his eyes reddening. "He went to a special school. You had to feed him manually. My wife cared for him all those years. He had a miserable life, but we enjoyed him while he was here."

S.F. court clerk Rene Pascual has been tireless in lobbying Philippine leaders for dual citizenship.
Paolo Vescia
S.F. court clerk Rene Pascual has been tireless in lobbying Philippine leaders for dual citizenship.
Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada greets Pascual during a 2000 S.F. visit.
Courtesy of Rene Pascual
Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada greets Pascual during a 2000 S.F. visit.

The medical costs and the emotional drain made Pascual's law ambitions seem out of the question.

"I asked my friends who took the bar exam and they said it was a full-time job," he says. "I know I can't make it because of my family situation. There was no time."

As the afternoon wears on, the San Francisco Superior Courthouse empties out and becomes a silent cave of marble and wood. A stillness descends on Courtroom 206 by 3:30 p.m., and in this calm, Pascual strolls purposefully from the judge's chambers to the administrative offices and his desk to handle legal paperwork.

Occasionally, people wander into the courtroom to ask about legal procedures, and Pascual deals with them perfunctorily, looking over his gold-rimmed glasses with an impatient stare.

Clearly, Pascual relishes being back in the courtroom and highly regards his role as a clerk. "I handle orders and judgments and correspondence," Pascual says as he organizes the many stacks on his desk. "I'm the right-hand man of the judge. I make sure the documents are OK before they are entered into the computer. The judge has no time to scrutinize the papers, so if I affix my initials, then he signs it. It is a precarious task."

Now that he has settled into the pace of clerking, Pascual says, he finds import and satisfaction in it, something he thought he would only find in practicing law.

"I was working here and it was progressing," he says. "I lose interest in the [American] bar exam because I was happy. My colleagues asked me about court procedures, and I felt secure. I know taking law school takes a lot of hard work and expenses. And then you can only hope to get personal-injury cases and things like that. So I finally felt happy. And now I work for the presiding judge in the Superior Court."

Still, the prestige and glamour of lawyering have never faded for Pascual. He has remained torn between necessity and ambition, never quite wanting to dismiss his dream and make a definitive choice. And now, Pascual may never have to -- if the political and economic stars align themselves, thousands of miles away in the Philippine Senate.

"It has been a hard feeling, to not want to lose my ability to practice law in the Philippines," Pascual says. "The legal profession is a special thing in the Philippines. It is a profession with magnitude. You don't want to just give it up. You take a lifetime, and it is so difficult to finish your studies, and then, with a simple ceremony [for U.S. citizenship], you have to give it up. Now there is an answer to the problem. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the benefit of dual citizenship, if I want, I can have my life dream back."

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