Elderly Fil-Am freed as SC resolves citizenship

The Supreme Court has ordered the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to release a 74-year-old Filipino American who has been detained for over seven years following his arrest in 2016.

In a 32-page decision promulgated in December 2023, but made public only on Wednesday, the high tribunal ruled that Walter Manuel Prescott, who was born of a Filipino mother and American father under the 1935 Constitution, is a natural-born Filipino citizen whose rights have been violated by both the BI and DOJ.

“His only wish is to spend his remaining years in the country, which he has always considered his home and his motherland. He deserves to be set free since long ago,” the court said in a decision penned by Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier.

The case stemmed from a petition for declaratory relief with a petition for habeas corpus filed by Prescott before the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC), where he sought to be declared a Filipino citizen and released from detention.

Prescott was born in the Philippines on April 10, 1950, to an American father and Filipino mother, but he was not considered a Filipino citizen because the 1935 Constitution did not automatically recognize the natural citizenship of those born to Filipino parents, unlike the 1973 and 1987 Constitutions.

Constitutional requirement As a rule, those born under the 1935 Constitution follow the citizenship of their alien father, until they opt for Filipino citizenship upon reaching the age of majority.

Prescott was issued an alien certificate of registration in 1951, but in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1977, the US Embassy informed him that he supposedly lost his American citizenship as of April 10, 1976, after overstaying in the Philippines.

In 1981, he married Maria Lourdes Dingcong, an American citizen, and in their marriage contract, he indicated his nationality as Filipino.

He lived and worked in the United States until he became a naturalized American citizen in 2006. Two years later, Prescott applied to reacquire his Filipino citizenship under Republic Act No. 9225 and took his oath of allegiance.

He retired in 2010 and returned to the Philippines with his wife, but in June 2012, she and a certain Jesse Troutman complained to the BI that he purportedly reacquired his Filipino citizenship illegally.

The BI recommended to then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima the cancellation of Prescott’s citizenship reacquisition and also accused him of fraudulently claiming Filipino citizenship.

Prescott’s name was placed on the BI watch list, and in 2016, a warrant of deportation was issued against him.

However, he was not deported immediately after the National Bureau of Investigation claimed he had three pending criminal cases, but it later turned out that there were no cases against him.

Prescott asked the Manila RTC for a writ of habeas corpus and declaratory relief, a plea that reached the Court of Appeals.

But the appellate court ruled in 2021 that Prescott was never a natural-born Filipino, since he was born under the 1935 Constitution, and the DOJ and BI were ordered to deport him within 30 days.

In its ruling on the case, the Supreme Court said the appellate court’s argument was erroneous and that Prescott’s oath of allegiance in 2008 constituted substantial compliance with election requirements under Commonwealth Act No. 625.

“For what he has not formally spoken or written in words when he reached the age of 21, and years thereafter, he unequivocally expressed through his consistent and deliberate actions throughout the course of his entire life, which totally evince of his loyalty, love and fealty to the Philippines,” the high tribunal said.

It also voided the BI’s proceedings and a 2013 DOJ resolution for having been conducted and issued in violation of Prescott’s constitutional right to due process.