A complicated mission
“Bad guys stay out, good guys stay in.”
That, says Bureau of Immigration head Siegfred Mison, is in essence what he and his team’s work in the BI is all about. Of course it’s easier said than done, since protecting our borders and welcoming visitors entail a lot more complications than is commonly thought.
To effectively “keep out” undesirable elements like terrorists, illegal aliens and potential troublemakers, the BI relies on a national and international network to provide intelligence and surveillance. At present, says Commissioner Mison, they keep a “derogatory watch list” of some 40-45,000 names against which any incoming or outgoing traveler is checked.
To be effective, as well as to provide swift and efficient service, the BI is hoping to get more new models of passport readers to facilitate the gathering of data from travelers. But with many of the BI machines breaking down, says Mison, what some personnel have been forced to do is to “manually encode the data.” But, he admits, “just one wrong entry or misspelling [and] your data are compromised.”
Despite the need for more personnel and new infrastructure, the BI is proving to be quite the “money-making” machine. And this has nothing to do with the allegations of corruption commonly lodged against immigration personnel and officials, and which Mison says he is working hard to dispel. The BI, he notes, recently earned some P3 billion in revenues—“the first time it happened,” he adds. But the trouble is, despite the increase in income, the revenue does not benefit the BI directly, since the money goes straight to the National Treasury. This is why Mison is throwing his support behind a proposal that would allow agencies like the BI to keep at least a portion of its income to improve its services.
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Guesting at the “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel,” the white-haired Mison (“I inherited this from my mother’s side of the family,” he explains) speaks of the tradition of service he must have inherited from his father Salvador, a long-time military official and then customs commissioner who, in his 80s, is still working in the Lucio Tan group of companies.
Mison also served in the military (along with an older brother who joined the Air Force), graduating from West Point and serving for more than 10 years in active service and in the military’s legal affairs.
He holds a law degree from Ateneo de Manila, supplemented with higher studies at the USC Law School, but he couldn’t resist the call of public service when asked to join the BI in 2011, rising to the post of commissioner in 2013.
“When Justice Secretary Leila de Lima convinced me to return to government service,” says Mison, “I told myself that I would give it my best for one year.” But noting that three years have since passed, he shrugs and says: “Maybe I’m doing something right.”
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This might include expediting processes in the bureau, cutting the waiting period (and the graft-ridden processes) for such things as alien certificates of registration and extensions of visas and work permits.
“We are trying to expedite all processes for permits,” he says, the goal being to take no longer than 30 days from application to finally getting hold of the needed documents.
The BI is also working with the Commission on Higher Education to make the process of applying for student visas less complicated. Unfortunately, he says, an executive order limits the validity of a student visa from six months to one year. With CHEd, the BI is studying how to extend the period of validity of a student visa to the entire period of a student’s course of study, to cut down on the number of times a foreign student needs to trek to the bureau for renewal.
“In my day as a foreign student abroad,” recalls the commissioner, “I never needed to deal with the immigration office. Maybe we can do that here.”
On quite another matter, that of the issue of illegal trafficking of Filipinos abroad, Mison says that responsibility for curbing the practice falls on a presidential task force, although the BI is doing all it can to cooperate with the other agencies in protecting victims—both actual and potential.
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The BI is facing another potentially thorny issue regarding the need to rescue the Rohingya refugees currently seeking asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia after being driven away from Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh.
Although no Rohingya has yet set foot on Philippine shores, Mison says a Philippine delegation is joining others from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to craft what he calls “a common Asean approach” not just to the Rohingya “problem” but to all other instances of mass cross-border migration.
But even at this early stage, he says, the government is looking into preparing for the refugees’ arrival, including refurbishing either (or both) of the camps in Bataan and Palawan used to host refugees after the end of the Vietnam War.
But whether preparing for the influx of a large group of refugees like the Rohingya, or planning to weed out undesirable elements from our shores, or facilitating a warm welcome for tourists and visitors, the challenges for the Bureau of Immigration and for Commissioner Mison remain formidable and daunting. But the prospects of meeting these challenges seem manageable for the country’s “gatekeeper.”
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