Grace Poe and the Idea of Citizenship

By Attorneys Eric R. Welsh & Nancy E. Miller

imagesIn most countries, including the United States, citizenship is the ultimate immigration status.  A citizen of the United States cannot be deported or removed from the country, and only a citizen can vote in federal and state elections.  Citizenship can be described as a social contract—rights and protections provided by the nation, in exchange for allegiance to the nation.  This concept can get rather murky when a person is a citizen of more than one country, or when a person wants to stop being a citizen.

Grace Poe is the current frontrunner in the race for President of the Philippines.  She continues to hold a lead in the polls for the election this May, but her candidacy is under attack because of her citizenship. Poe, who is rumored to be an illegitimate child of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was born in the Philippines but abandoned as a child.  She was then adopted and raised by a Filipino movie star.  She immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in October 2001.  In 2005, after her adopted father died, she moved back to the Philippines and applied for dual citizenship under Philippine law, which was granted in 2006.

In 2010, President Benigno Aquino appointed Poe to chair the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), but Philippine law required her to renounce her American citizenship before taking the appointment.  She signed an affidavit before a notary in October 2010, renouncing her American citizenship.  She later filed an Affirmation of Renunciation at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, and the Embassy formally recognized her renunciation in February 2012.

Now, Poe is facing challengers who claim she is not eligible to hold the office of President because of Philippine law regarding citizenship.  Her challengers claim that because Poe was found as an abandoned child and cannot prove the identity of her birth parents, she is not a “natural born” citizen of the Philippines.  They also allege that she did not meet residency requirements.  Her opponents also argue that she did not timely renounce her U.S. citizenship before accepting her position with the MTRCB.  Some even argue that legality aside, she should not be allowed to run for president because she previously naturalized as an American, and in doing so turned her back on the Philippines.

Poe’s candidacy has raised interesting questions regarding the citizenship of a parentless child, and the idea of dual citizenship.  Regarding her birth, Poe’s challengers argue that since Poe’s actual biological parents are not known, she cannot prove she was born to Philippine parents.  This would not be an issue in a country like the United States that recognizes citizenship “jus soli” (“right of the soil”), but unlike the United States, birth in the Philippines does not in itself confer citizenship.  For her part, Poe (and her supporters) have strongly argued that she is entitled to citizenship as a parentless “foundling,” who should be presumed by law to be born of natives of the country where born.

Regarding her American citizenship, Poe’s case raises more thorny issues.  The United States does not expressly forbid dual citizenship, but it is discouraged.  The position of the United States is that citizenship confers special privileges both inside and outside of the United States, including diplomatic protection abroad, and the protections and rights of American citizens can become unclear when a person claims citizenship to more than one sovereign.  For Grace Poe, the issue is even more clearly restricted: under Philippine law, only Philippine citizens with no allegiance to any other country can seek election to public office.

In order to renounce her U.S. citizenship, Grace Poe had to engage in a formal process before the U.S. Consulate and sign an oath of renunciation.  American citizenship cannot be easily lost or forfeited; the formalities of the renunciation process are specifically designed to make certain that the person renouncing does so with clear intent and informed understanding of what they are giving up.

Whether Grace Poe is elected next month remains to be seen.  If she is elected, she is likely to hear continuing challenges from her detractors.  The special status that citizenship confers—and the rights and benefits that come with citizenship—often inflame passions of national identity and the abstract notion of “belonging.”  Poe’s candidacy provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue about the idea of citizenship, and about the costs of giving that status away.