Citizenship and Grace Poe

When Grace Poe ran for senator in 2013, questions about her citizenship were never raised, as far as I can recall. Her public persona was completely defined by her association with her father, the late iconic movie actor, Fernando Poe Jr. That she was an adopted daughter seemed immaterial to voters. That she once renounced her Philippine citizenship to become an American citizen was never mentioned. That she later had to give up her US citizenship so she could accept an appointment in 2010 as chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board was known even less.

Not that there was any deliberate attempt to conceal these facts in her pursuit of a political career. But, it is fair to ask if Filipinos would have voted her No. 1 senator if they had known about the citizenship issues that hound her today as she seeks the nation’s highest position.

As one of the millions who voted for her in 2013, I think I would still have included her name on my ballot. But, I would have insisted in probing what it was that prompted her to come back and serve in the government on which she once turned her back. Was it the prospect of being able to pursue the path her late father paved for her and, in a sense, paid for with his own life?

Motives are complex and are difficult to ascertain. Indeed, often, even as they drive our actions, they become clear to us only in retrospect.  Four of my siblings chose to move to the United States and become American citizens. I don’t remember ever asking them about their motives.  My late father, a dedicated public servant who staunchly believed that we owed it to our country to stay with her through good and bad times, would have felt aggrieved. But, I simply assumed that, though they traded their Philippine passport for an American one, my siblings remained Filipinos at heart. To me, changing one’s citizenship is a practical decision that ought not to define one’s entire being.

It ceases to be merely so, however, when one aspires for higher public office, or when one seeks governmental powers that affect the collective life of an entire political community.  This is where I find Sen. Grace Poe’s responses to questions about her citizenship inadequate. I think that she has managed to deflect valid questions about the depth of her allegiance to the country she seeks to lead as president by focusing on her status as a foundling. She argues that foundlings are entitled to recognition as natural-born citizens of the country in which they are found. I believe that, by the same token, a nation is entitled to demand of its citizens—particularly of those who aspire to lead it—unequivocal commitment to its wellbeing.

Again, I am aware that patriotic commitment is something that is hard to measure.

Every country has its scoundrels, irrespective of whether they are natural-born or naturalized citizens. That said, it is not unreasonable to ask Ms Poe, who wants to be president of the Philippines, what gives her the right to demand full recognition of her citizenship as a foundling in the political community she once dumped as an adult.

No American who has renounced her US citizenship can expect to regain it. But, even if she could, it would be unthinkable for America to allow someone who gave up her citizenship and then reacquired it to seek the presidency of the United States. It is this rigorous concept of citizenship, which frowns upon dual or ambivalent allegiance, that underpins the notion that is enshrined in both the US and Philippine Constitutions—that the nation’s presidency is open only to natural-born citizens.

Some may argue that, in a globalized world, conscientious patriotism has become passé.  We don’t know. What we know for sure is that fundamental principles found in successive iterations of the Philippine Constitution are fervently nationalistic. Indeed, they mirror an epoch when the Filipino identity was effectively defined by its contrasts against an imaginary “other.” Until we amend our Constitution and revise our laws, we have to abide by them.

In our nation’s history, the image of that “other” was not the foundling but the Chinese in our midst. Our adoption of the jus sanguinis model of citizenship, which is based on an ethnocultural concept of the nation, effectively discriminated against generations of ethnic Chinese who were born, raised, and educated in the Philippines. Under the jus soli model, there would not have been any question about their being Filipino citizens. And yet, like their parents, they had to undergo the tedious process of naturalization.

This mode of exclusion unfortunately survives through many of our laws and administrative procedures, making of these Filipinos second-class citizens in their own country. As they are not natural-born citizens, they are barred from running for Congress or the presidency or from being appointed to the Supreme Court. Though Philippine-born, they cannot avail themselves of the Dual Citizenship Law.

Grace Poe is luckier. Adopted by prominent show biz parents, she grew up without anybody questioning her citizenship. When she dropped her Philippine citizenship to become an American citizen, later reacquiring it with ease as a dual citizen, nobody cared still.

Today we care not because any of her actions “violated the Ten Commandments” (her words), but because Filipinos must be able to hold their president to the highest form of allegiance to the nation.

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