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

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.

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.
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."
Pascual hands Philippine President Gloria Arroyo resolutions for dual citizenship and absentee voting.
Courtesy of Rene Pascual
Pascual hands Philippine President Gloria Arroyo resolutions for dual citizenship and absentee voting.

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.

"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.

Settled into a chair in the back room of his San Francisco office, he fishes for a copy of the speech he delivered during the Arroyo event. To find it, he sifts through documents related to the Senate bills: yellow publicity fliers (which he hands out at community events), and newspaper articles about a public forum he helped assemble (with his picture on the front page).

In 1998 when Pascual became president of the California Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, a legal association, he made both bills the focus of his tenure. The organization has been the most vocal on these issues regionally.

And Pascual is already dreaming up his next lobbying move: buying ad space in all major Philippine newspapers to run an open letter supporting both bills.

"And not only that," Pascual says, leaning in excitedly. "I will buy one whole page and publish the letter in the Philippine News, the biggest Filipino paper in the U.S. I will encourage everyone to follow up and lobby their senators."

Pascual's motivations are not completely altruistic. By immigrating to America, he had to sacrifice a law career, which has been a dream since childhood. For many years, Pascual brooded about this conflict of necessity and ambition. With dual citizenship on the horizon, Pascual will be able to reap the benefits of being American and Filipino.

"The reason why I did not turn over my Philippine citizenship is because I wanted to go back to the Philippines and practice law," he says. "I plan now to file my naturalization papers because of dual citizenship. As a family man, I am glad I am here. I could not live the way I do now and raise a good family in the Philippines because our finances would be limited."

Pascual can't shake the calling of law, though. Of the eight brothers and sisters in the Pascual family, young Rene emerged as the most outspoken of the clan. "My father would say, "You are always arguing with everyone. You would make a good lawyer.' And it kind of got into my mind."

Law became such a consuming passion that when his immigration visa, filed by his oldest sister, was approved, Pascual asked for a deferment because he wanted to finish law school.

A year later, in 1977, Pascual passed the bar exam. He asked for another immigration deferment and took a job at the law offices of an attorney named Jose Miguel Tuason Arroyo, who would later marry a politician name Gloria Macapagal.

After a short stint at the Arroyo law offices, Pascual joined the Citizen's Legal Assistance Office, the equivalent of the Public Defender's Office. He stayed there for a little over a year, dashing to court every morning to handle arraignments for attempted homicide, bribery, theft, or sexual abuse cases.

As time passed Pascual found himself steeped more and more in lawyering. His visa had been deferred for about two years. "I was enjoying my practice," he says.

Finally, in 1979, the U.S. Embassy called Pascual to tell him his immigration visa was about to expire. "They gave me an ultimatum," Pascual says. "Their argument was: "Pascual, when you come to the Embassy, there is a long line of people begging us to give them a visa. You are begging us not to make you go. So take it or leave it.'"

Pascual quit his job in frustration. He was on a plane to New York a few weeks later.

Dual citizenship is currently against the law in the Philippines unless a child is born on foreign soil to parents who are Philippine citizens. According to the 1986 Philippine Constitution, "dual allegiance of Filipino citizens is inimical to the national interests and shall be dealt with by law."

The constitution strengthens past laws which stated that anyone who became a naturalized citizen anywhere else automatically lost his Filipino citizenship. There were no exceptions.

Dr. Jay Gonzalez, a bespectacled academic who teaches at multiple San Francisco universities, worked for one of the 100 commissioners charged with writing the 1986 constitution after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. He says the majority of the commission agreed to outlaw dual citizenship, and there was little debate on the issue.

During the drafting of the constitution, Gonzalez says, the commissioners engaged in impassioned debates on every subject imaginable (one commissioner even hurled an ashtray across the room in disgust during a discussion of land reform). An intensity and excitement lingered in the air like the thick cigarette smoke that clouded the room.

But on the day the commission tackled dual citizenship, the tension in the room dissipated. The debates grew less rancorous, and there was a general agreement that dual citizenship was not acceptable.

"In that environment, people are drawn to protect Philippine sovereignty," Gonzalez recalls. "We wanted to show patriotism, so we enacted a provision that says dual allegiance is "inimical' to national interest. It was very strong wording. We had just overthrown a dictator."

But times have changed, Gonzalez says. Even with the constitution's strong stance against dual citizenship, upholding the law is no longer politically useful. The export of primarily female workers to service-sector jobs in Asia, and the exodus of the Philippines' brightest to countries like the United States, have made dual citizenship a necessity.

"The context has changed," Gonzalez says. "Right now, the Philippine economy is relying a lot on overseas remittances -- it's 5 percent of the country's gross national product.

"The Philippines should not think of human capital as something to export. But unless they have a solid economy, politicians have no choice but to approve of exportation. It's better than facing the wrath of your constituents."

Philippine congressional staffers justify the about-face in dual-citizenship policy by drawing distinctions between allegiance and citizenship. "The constitution specifically forbids dual allegiance," says Queenie Evangelista, a staffer for Senate President Franklin Drilon, who sponsored the current bill. "There are certain definitions and interpretations of jurisprudence in regard to allegiance. If you voluntarily served in the armed forces or chose to run for public office, then you have in effect renounced your allegiance."

Some academics also say that the Philippine Senate bills are part of an international trend, and nationalism can no longer be equated with loyalty to a single country. In the wake of globalization, "long-distance nationalism" has emerged, where economic, social, and sentimental ties to a home country remain especially strong. Currently, more than 80 countries offer dual citizenship.

"We don't want to claim that leaving home and still trying to connect with it is new, but we do think that the kinds of ideologies of home, and the kinds of political actions that people are taking now, are linked to globalization," says the University of New Hampshire's Shiller.

"The U.S. has a long-term ideology of being a land of immigrants, but these immigrants are supposed to uproot and leave the homeland behind to form a new life. Dual citizenship is legal and you can have dual nationalities. It's just not ideologically comfortable in the U.S."

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says it does not have a stance on dual citizenship -- it is simply not recognized. "The INS does not take any position at all," the agency's spokesperson, Sharon Rummery, says. "To us, you're just American. If you can say all that [in the Oath of Allegiance] and continue to be a citizen somewhere else, then it's a personal decision, and it's up to the other country."

But opposition sounds from the Philippines. "As far as I'm concerned, you can only be a citizen of one country," asserts Rudy Quimbo, the chief of staff for Philippine Sen. Juan Flavier. "You cannot have the best of both worlds. It's a matter of pride."

To practice law in the Philippines, there are three requirements. First, you must attend nine years of law school. Second, you must pass a 24-hour bar exam held over the course of a month. Third, you must be a citizen of the Philippines.

Rene Pascual has met all of the requirements, and after living in America for nearly 20 years, he still does. It is largely because of his passion for law -- and not because he doesn't want to vote in U.S. elections or doesn't enjoy living in America -- that Pascual remains a green-card holder instead of a full-fledged U.S. citizen. Dual citizenship would finally pull Pascual out of limbo.

If things had gone according to plan, Pascual would have considered becoming a U.S. citizen long ago, as soon as he acquired an American law degree. But, he reflects quietly, life changes your expectations.

After quitting his attorney position in a huff, Pascual arrived in New York in late 1979. He found a job as a paralegal and began thinking about practicing law in America, which has an "effective and ethical" legal system he admires.

After five months of New York living, he flew back to marry his fiancee of seven years (he had remained single so it would be easier for his sister to petition for him to come to the U.S.). Even as he tried to build a second law career, Pascual returned to the Philippines often to see his wife, who was waiting for her own immigration visa.

Soon, his wife gave birth to their first son, and Pascual, a self-described family man, was joyous. He had a renewed sense of purpose -- providing for a wife anda growing family.

He was equally happy when he received the news that his wife was pregnant with their second son. But the "traumatic" delivery of their second child would swiftly dash Pascual's ambitions.

When Pascual's wife went to the local hospital to deliver the baby, her doctor was late, leaving only a midwife to assist her. Though Pascual's wife needed a Caesarean, the midwife tried to force a natural birth, using metal forceps to pull the newborn out by his head. The infant suffered from lesions on his head, and he was diagnosed with permanent brain damage. The doctor never showed up.

"There was no way to save the child," Pascual says. "The only way was through immediate surgery. The only hope was to bring him to the United States. They said he only had a year to live."

When Pascual got word of the complications, he went back to the Philippines for a month. On his way east, he stopped in Milpitas to stay with family for a week. He was worried about not having medical insurance, and his family introduced him to the owner of a tech company in Silicon Valley. He was offered a job as a shipping and receiving clerk, which he accepted on the spot.

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."

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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