Last week, some 300 employees of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) conducted a cleanup drive in Manila Bay picking up garbage from the shoreline along Roxas Boulevard. Together with members of the Philippine Coast Guard, Manila City Hall and other entities, the group was able to collect five dump trucks of solid waste material.
Next week, the bureau intends to hold a tree-planting activity at the Long Island Bird Sanctuary along the coastal road in Parañaque City.
In a recent memorandum, Immigration Commissioner Ricardo David Jr. re-imposed a dress code for all persons transacting business within immigration premises in Intramuros, Manila. Visitors—Filipino or foreigner—would no longer be entertained if they wore shorts, undershirts or slippers. Apparently this strict dress code was observed in the past but like other office directives, the policy suffered neglect and lack of enforcement by previous administrations.
All of these activities are part of the run-up to the agency’s 71st anniversary on Sept. 3.
Perhaps a little history will give us a better perspective on one of the more sensitive institutions in our bureaucracy.
During the early years of American colonial rule, the unit tasked to perform immigration functions was a minor division of the Bureau of Customs. In those days, the focus was mainly on the collection of duties and taxes rather than on the control of illegal aliens. This arrangement continued until 1937 when the division was transferred to the Bureau of Labor.
On Sept. 3, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940, creating the Bureau of Immigration and placing it under the Office of the President of the Commonwealth. It would end up as an attached agency of the Department of Justice.
During the martial law years, under an Integrated Reorganization Plan of government, the bureau was renamed the Commission on Immigration and Deportation (CID), headed by a commissioner and two associate commissioners. In 1987, President Corazon Aquino restored its old name—Bureau of Immigration.
The first head of the agency was Serafin Hilado. The longest serving commissioner was Edmundo Reyes who held office for almost 20 years—from 1967-1986. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was immigration commissioner from 1988 to 1989. Her work in the bureau would lead to a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service. Santiago would be succeeded by Bienvenido Alano Jr., a dedicated public servant who served with me in government. Ramon J. Liwag would be named commissioner in an acting capacity on three occasions. For some reason, he would miss out on a permanent appointment.
Earlier, I mentioned some of the work being done by the bureau to polish its image as it approaches another milestone. While a Manila Bay cleanup, tree-planting programs and the like are welcome activities, there are a number of substantive issues that have to be addressed by the bureau if it is to carry out its vital role in the worldwide fight against human trafficking.
Only recently, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was forced to publicly apologize to former FG Mike Arroyo for the wrong information provided her by immigration officers. There are all sorts of explanations by the agency, but the fact remains that De Lima was not well-served by her subordinates in the bureau.
In my case, before a recent trip to Vietnam, I was given an embarkation card which indicated that Philippine passport holders need not fill up such a card. When I got to the immigration counter, however, I was told to fill up the card. Who is to blame? Doesn’t anyone from Immigration proofread documents before they are distributed for public use?
Another important area crying for improvement is communications.
Have you ever tried to contact the immigration bureau by telephone? I called up PLDT information, and they had one number for the immigration offices in Intramuros. When I called up the number, I asked to be connected to the Office of the Commissioner. Guess what? I was informed that the number I had reached was that of an accounting office. Nevertheless they were kind enough to provide me with three numbers for the Office of the Commissioner. I tried all three numbers for almost 30 minutes. The phones kept ringing but no one was answering them. I called back the earlier number of the accounting office and I mentioned that no one was answering the telephone numbers that they had given me. I asked if they had some central operator who could connect me to the different offices of the bureau. The reply was, there was no such system in the bureau. Can you believe this?! Such an important office in the government and it is impossible to reach specific offices through an operator. Unless you have the direct line, or the cellular phone numbers of these offices, you are a dead duck as far as speaking to immigration personnel. I understand that a central telephone system is in the works. We don’t know when this will be in place. But in the meantime, can something be done to help the transacting public, Filipino or foreigner?
The immigration bureau can also be of great help in improving tourist perceptions as they arrive in our country. Immigration officers are the first line in the processing of passenger documents. As I mentioned in an earlier column, in Vietnam, arriving and departing passengers are not required to fill up arrival and departure cards.
What a great way to receive visitors in our country. If Vietnam feels no need for such documentation, perhaps they have discovered some system that serves their national security needs without having to burden visitors with unnecessary paperwork. If our immigration bureau can come up with a similar simplification of entry and exit formalities, it would be a breakthrough that Commissioner David Jr. can rightfully claim as his legacy to the nation. There are problems and there are problems. But if we have the will, we should be able to find the solutions.
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