'Exciting times' for the Bureau of Immigration
In a recent debate tournament I had the privilege of judging, a friend I worked with in the core judging panel pitched as topic the use of travel entry restrictions as political tools.
The control of transnational mobility has always been a touchy subject for many nations, not least of which is the Philippines.
With overseas remittances from Filipinos based abroad as a major income source, travel (and, yes, a working visa) is integral to the country's development targets.
A passport-holder's entry to another country is supposedly dependent on bare minimum requirements which include the lack of a criminal or derogatory status.
Generally, making travel dependent on other requirements – for example, an official state apology over a hostage-taking incident – may not be as effective as the more traditional economic sanctions.
This dynamic puts the Philippines in an odd position: Other countries can threaten us with tighter immigration control. We, on the other hand, are pressed to welcome tourists and migrants to aid in economic growth.
The country's tourism target, which many refer to as ambitious, is at 10 million by 2016. The target represents 18.8% of the total jobs nationwide or 8.7% of GDP, which is why the country is pressured to achieve it.
The country's policy on illegal aliens is also relatively kinder as far as state crackdown on undocumented migrants go.
The Bureau of Immigration (BI) has announced a no-arrest policy wherein illegal aliens willing to report to the immigration bureau on their own accord are spared from detention.
Even the country's stand (or more aptly put, lack of one) on the impending ASEAN integration in 2015 smacks of eagerness to "make things easier" for foreign nationals to enter the Philippines.
In a press briefing Tuesday, December 17, the newly-appointed BI commissioner Siegfred Mison said the Philippines remains neutral on the issue, but added that it would welcome a single-visa policy for the bloc if it means more arrivals.
New immigration law
The politics of immigration control – which thankfully, as far as the Philippines is concerned, involves only one country thus far – is just one of the worries of the Philippine immigration bureau.
The new leadership is eyeing the passage of an immigration law which will replace Commonwealth Act 613 or the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940.
The decades-old law was passed during the presidency of Manuel Quezon, at a time when issues brought about by a highly globalized world were yet to be considered.
The BI, said Mison, will ask the President to certify the bill as urgent once Congress comes up with a consolidated version hopefully by early 2014. Around 8 different versions have surfaced in the country's legislative chambers, he added.
CA 613 has been amended by various Republic Acts but is criticized for its "antiquated provisions." Lawmakers and policy analysts alike have raised concerns about how it is unresponsive to new developments surrounding immigration, including fugitives, asylum-seekers, criminal syndicate-immigrants, and human traffickers.
The BI is, however, taking it one step at a time.
It has under its custody 5 undocumented Chinese immigrants who are detained following the raid of a shopping mall by immigration operatives. (READ: 5 Chinese nationals detained as illegal aliens)
The December 11 operation – "duly covered by a Mission Order and authorized by the Department of Justice" – occurred in Binondo-based 168 mall, where intelligence reports confirm that foreign nationals engage in business activities without the necessary working visas.
To expedite the crackdown amid its no-arrest policy, the BI hopes to collaborate with local governments as the bodies granting business permits. Mison has his eye on Manila where Binondo, a Chinese enclave, is located.
He has met with Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, who referred him to his city administrator, on the issue.
Mison also plans to set up satellite immigration offices in accessible commercial centers like malls – "like what DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) did," he said. This will make it easier for immigrants to update their documents or apply for visa extensions.
Initial talks with mall-owners are underway.
At present, the BI has a rent-free satellite office in SM North EDSA. Outside Metro Manila, satellite immigration offices inside malls are in Gaisano Cebu City in the Visayas, and Robinsons General Santos City in Mindanao.
Challenge for the new leadership
The challenge for Mison is not only to have sound immigration control policies in place, but to have the will to implement them without bias or favor.
Just as the entry of goods in the country is mired with issues of under-the-table payments to Customs officials, immigration personnel are also exposed to individuals willing and able to pay to cut the red tape. Allegations of extortion by immigration personnel persist.
On December 19, four immigration officers were charged for aiding the escape of a wanted Korean investment scammer and fugitive. Park Sungjun was able to secure his visa from immigration officers and get past airport officials unrecorded in immigration documents. (READ: Immigration officers to be charged over Korean's escape)
If the charges are true, we could only imagine what compromises immigration officers are willing to make for non-fugitives.
Admittedly, Mison – who was appointed by President Benigno Aquino III Saturday, December 21 – said "a change in culture is what is needed in every agency."
With a newly-appointed BI commissioner, we could only hope that better things will come.
"Kung meron mang konting loko-loko, konti lang yan. Pakonti nang pakonti (If there are crooks, there's only a handful of them. They are gradually decreasing)," he said confidently.
As the BI chief put it during his interview with the media, these are "exciting times" for the immigration bureau. – Rappler.com
Buena Bernal is a multimedia reporter for Rappler, covering Philippine courts and immigration. You can follow her: @buenabernal.