Reforming Philippine immigration

Originally published in on 09 March 2014.

In preparation for the coming integration of the economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015, the Philippine bureaucracy has been pursuing reforms in various areas. Immigration is one of them.
Commonwealth Act No. 613, also known as the Philippine Immigration Act (PIA) of 1940, is one of the oldest existing laws in the Philippines. It  passed through the second National Assembly under the leadership of then Speaker Jose Yulo on May 2 that year, was signed by President Manuel L. Quezon on May 26 and approved by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 26. The Commonwealth of the Philippines was an American protectorate at that time.
The PIA mandated the creation of the Bureau of Immigration, initially under the administrative supervision of the Department of Labor but now under the Department of Justice. The Bureau’s mandate is to regulate the entry, exit, and movement of foreign nationals in the country.
It is worth noting that the PIA is the most advanced law of its time, and was  among the first of its kind to define the terms refugees and stateless persons. Its legislation was heavily influenced by the influx of Jewish refugees in 1933– the Philippines was one of a few countries that provided refuge to Jewish victims of the early phases of the Holocaust then. Later on, the PIA would provide an inspiration to the enactment of the United Nations Convention relating to the status of Refugees (CRSR) and United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (CRSSP), which were ratified in 1951 and 1954, respectively.
Seventy-three years and twenty-five commissioners later, the said law is still in effect with few amendments to its original provisions. In 1950, the Alien Registration Act was enacted to supplement the PIA.
Yet, the present conditions of migration, travel, and other circumstances have evolved tin such a way that it has become very difficult for immigration officials to deal with the present situation. To cater to these needs, various circulars, memoranda, immigration, administrative and operation orders have been formulated. Such actions on the part of the Office of the Commissioner, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and, sometimes, even the Office of the President; however, are not enough to accommodate such changes. Crafting a new law to make it more relevant in today’s time would be more appropriate to give it more teeth and expand its authority.
For instance, accordance with the PIA, the Bureau of Immigration has seven divisions that work along with the Office of the Commissioner, two associate commissioners and an executive director. These divisions are the Board of Special Inquiry, Intelligence Division, Law and Investigation Division, Immigration Regulation Division, Alien Registration Division, Administrative Division and the Finance and Management Division. Evolving challenges, however, have necessitated the creation of new divisions through the years.
In 2008, the Airport Operations Division (AOD) was created under a Memorandum Circular of the DOJ, then under the stewardship of acting secretary Agnes Devanadera. The mandate of the AOD is to manage the Immigration operations in the country’s twelve international airports and one international seaport. In the same year, a twenty-four hou Operations Office was created by then Immigration Commissioner Marcelino C. Libanan. It has been renamed the Bureau of Immigration National Operations Center (BINOC) and is under the direct supervision of the Office of the Commissioner. The function of the BINOC is to monitor the operations of all international ports of entry and exit as well as supplement the manpower of the field operations. It is also a data generating office that has the same function as that of the Strategic Operations Division of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In 2012, then Commissioner Ricardo A. David, Jr. through a Memorandum Circular created the Verification and Compliance Division (VCD) which is tasked to conduct post-audit in all of its transactions.
It is important to note that these important and crucial operational matters have been instituted only through a memorandum which can be revoked anytime by the Commissioner or by the Secretary of Justice. To ensure continuity, a new immigration law is needed.
The said law must meet the evolving demands in areas like migrations, human and drug trafficking, transnational prostitution of women and children, border controls, travel and leisure, among other things. It should also equip Immigration administrators the much needed power to intensify their campaign to eradicate transnational crimes and international smuggling, as well as in prosecuting foreign nationals violating Immigration regulations.
Commissioner Libanan, who served from 2008 to 2010, had attempted to urge Congress to pass a new immigration law in order to meet the evolving demands on the Bureau. Similarly, in 2012, Commissioner David asked Congress for a similar piece of legislation. A bill was submitted in the House of Representatives, but the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Guttierez and Chief Justice Renato Corona and the 2013 elections overtook the bill’s passage. The bill did not see the light of day in the 16th Congress.
This year, under the new leadership of Commissioner Siegfred B. Mison, talks on the passage of the said bill has gained momentum once again. It has garnered support from key officials in the present government. House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte will be the principal sponsor for the new immigration bill, which has been certified it as a priority. President Benigno S. Aquino III supports its passage. It’s time the former Immmigration commissioners in Congress, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Congressman Rufus B. Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro, support the bill too.