The issue of Grace Poe not being Filipino enough to be president is mostly political bluster (or legalistic gymnastics); but it reveals a deep-seated bias of many Filipinos against kababayans who have lived and worked abroad. For these people, Grace Poe’s real ‘crime’ is that she spent some years out of the country. This is ironic: the Philippines hails Overseas Filipinos as its new heroes; but if we try to do more, we are often treated with suspicion as ‘meddling foreigners’.
We Overseas Filipinos do not want to be treated merely as ninongs to the Philippines – whose only role is to give gifts. We feel that remittances should be the beginning of our involvement with the Philippines, not the end. But there are many barriers to our full involvement.
There are many limits to our economic participation. Overseas Filipinos can only invest in micro (e.g. sari-sari stores or jeepneys ) and sometimes small businesses . Citizenship or residency requirements limit those residing abroad from investing in more substantial ventures.
When we buy real estate e.g. condominiums, we are forced to surrender most of our rights to our relatives. Banks require that we assign signing rights to a relative; making them virtually the owners of the unit while we are paying off the loan. Even if we happen to be in the Philippines at the time of a signing, our relative still has to sign for us.
In politics, Overseas Filipinos are still a bit disenfranchised. It was only recently that the provision in the Overseas Absentee Voting law requiring us to sign an ‘Intent to Return’ affidavit before registering to vote was scrapped. This provision had discouraged many from registering to vote, for fear of endangering their legal status in their host country.
Overseas Filipinos are not represented in Congress – ideally, there should be a few congressmen who are directly elected from among us. Now, all we have are OF relatives who claim to do so.
Residency requirements completely bar us from running for office. Even in the case of Grace Poe, who has lived the required number of years in the Philippines, people still raise all kinds of technicalities to keep her from running for President.
Some people say that Grace Poe is a naturalized Filipino. She is not. She is a natural-born Filipino who went abroad, acquired the citizenship of her host country (making her a dual citizen), and then opted to renounce her foreign citizenship. She remains a natural-born Filipino.
Many Overseas Filipinos have reacquired their Filipino ciitzenship after the Dual Citizenship Law was enacted in 2002. Those who reacquire Filipino citizenship are also natural-born Filipinos. Having two citizenships does not make them a lower category of Filipino citizen.
Overseas Filipinos who reacquire their Filipino citizenship do so for a variety of reasons: to vote at elections; to buy land or invest; to exercise a profession. Some do it mainly for ‘sentimental’ reasons – strengthening their feeling of ‘Filipino-ness’. Whatever the reason, OFs do so because they want to be more involved with the Philippines.
The government, and most people, think that our relatives could represent us. This is only true to a limited extent. Of course, we love our relatives. For many of us, they are the reason why we are abroad in the first place. But this does not mean that they think like us, or that their interests are the same as ours.
Often, when OFs leave relatives in charge of houses that we build; the relative takes on the effective ownership of those houses. They can make alterations to the house, or they take on boarders or subdivide the house and rent the rooms out to people. When we visit the Philippines, we could not stay in the house because there is no more room for us.
There are many relatives who ask our help in setting up a ‘business’. This is probably a tricycle, a market stall or other micro business. But, most of the time, the business is not managed well: equipment is not maintained well; or there is not enough working capital (because it got spent for ‘urgent’ uses); or they take out a loan, which they cannot repay. In a few years, nothing is left of the ‘business’. Overseas Filipinos know this, and only ‘invest’ money that they can afford to lose, because very often, that is what happens.
In politics, representatives of OF families have run in elections or lobby the government for ‘better’ laws. Actually, the laws they want would be better for themselves, and not necessarily for OFs. For example, OFs would like to do away with the arrangement where a fixed percentage of salaries is remitted to the families. The relatives are very much against changing this arrangement.
The potential for OFs to contribute to the country’s development goes far beyond our monetary contribution. OFs have gained skills, knowledge, insights, networks, values etc. due to our exposure to the wider world. In order to unleash this potential, all kinds of hurdles to OF participation in Philippine development need to be dismantled.
If Overseas Filipinos are allowed to directly invest in and run a whole range of companies, it will result in a stream of money that will greatly surpass traditional remittances.
If Overseas Filipinos are allowed to fully participate in politics, it will have a positive effect on the country’s politics, especially that of national elections.
I hope the Philippines makes a start at this. The Supreme Court could start this off by declaring Grace Poe as a natural-born Filipino, declare that her period as a US citizen is irrlevant to her present candidacy, and allow her to run for president.