‘Natural born Citizen’

That phrase, without a hyphen, first appeared in the United States Constitution as one of the requirements for the position of president. A “natural born Citizen” is a person who is a citizen from birth, in contrast to one who acquires citizenship by naturalization. No other position in the American government specifies this requirement.

The story is told that it was George Washington no less who introduced this unique phrase into the draft American constitution, following a suggestion from James Jay, who would later become chief justice of the US Supreme Court. Jay was troubled by the possibility that the nation’s armed forces would be placed under the command of anyone other than a “natural born Citizen.” This requirement was intended, Justice Joseph Story explains in his lucid Commentaries on the Constitution, to “interpose a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments in executive elections.”

The phrase, now hyphenated, found its way into the Philippine Constitution, where it is prescribed not just for the presidency but also for membership in both houses of Congress. And just as it has been invoked many times to challenge the eligibility of candidates for the US presidency, it comes as no surprise that it would also be used to oppose the candidacies of some people in Philippine politics.

Laws pertaining to citizenship are specific to every nation. They change over time, reflecting the values and anxieties of a given period. My impression is that it is relatively easier to acquire citizenship in the United States than in the Philippines. But once American citizenship is renounced, it is virtually impossible to get it back.

In our case, we passed a law, Republic Act No. 9225, the “Citizenship Retention and Re-acquisition Act of 2003,” otherwise known as the Dual Citizenship Law, that enables natural-born Filipino citizens, who lost their citizenship when they applied for naturalization in another country, to reacquire it. One simply notifies the Bureau of Immigration in Manila or a Philippine consulate abroad, showing proof of being natural-born, and takes a nonexclusive oath of allegiance. Dual citizens regain their Filipino citizenship without risking their foreign citizenship. They get to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Filipino citizens, except appointment or election to public office.

The purpose of this law is to encourage the millions of Filipinos who have left the country and settled abroad to come back and help in the development of their native land. Passing it was far from easy. Our Constitution jealously frowns upon dual allegiance, calling it “inimical to the national interest.” But RA 9225 has survived repeated challenges to its constitutionality.

Citizenship is a legal issue, but also an emotional one. I am not a lawyer, but I think Sen. Grace Poe’s eligibility for an elective position in the legislature or the presidency is arguable using RA 9225. That law permitted her to regain her status as a natural-born citizen of this country. But those who oppose her on citizenship grounds will likely ask whether someone who renounced and later reacquired Philippine citizenship can still be considered a natural-born citizen as defined by the 1987 Constitution. Here’s what Article IV, Section 2, says: “Natural-born citizens are those who are citizens of the Philippines from birth without having to perform any act to acquire or perfect their Philippine citizenship.”

Questions: If you renounced and lost your citizenship—and later reacquired it after applying and taking an oath—wouldn’t the latter be regarded as performing an “act to acquire or perfect” one’s citizenship? Doesn’t renouncing your citizenship mean canceling your allegiance to your mother country? And isn’t that the reason for taking the oath of allegiance when you apply to regain it?

I think it was Grace’s voluntary renunciation of her Filipino citizenship at one point in her life, rather than the uncertainty of her citizenship at birth as a foundling, that will hound her political career. This is not just a legal issue. It is also, unavoidably, a political one because it has to do with choosing the people who will make decisions in our name. There has to be a reason for the constitutional requirement that the president of the republic be a natural-born citizen, just as I am sure there is a reason for requiring holders of high offices in our government to hold no other citizenship but Filipino.

I have four siblings who, like many Filipinos, have lived in America for years and have opted to become American citizens. I never questioned their decision because I don’t believe that one’s enduring affinities and affections are determined by whatever passport one happens to be holding.

Having said that, I nonetheless find it reasonable that the Constitution requires more from those aspiring for the highest offices of the republic. They must be free of the stain of dual allegiance. Grace has to find a convincing way to respond, for example, to the late Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz’s contention that “Philippine citizenship previously disowned is not that cheaply recovered.”

Justice Cruz was always eloquent when it concerned the obligations of Filipino citizenship: “This country of ours, for all its difficulties and limitations, is like a jealous and possessive mother. Once rejected, it is not quick to welcome back with eager arms its prodigal if repentant children. The returning renegade must show, by an express and unequivocal act, the renewal of his loyalty and love.”

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