‘Update law to help stop immigration scams’
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 is in dire need of updating to clamp down on corrupt activities such as the “pastillas” scheme in the Bureau of Immigration (BI), its chief said yesterday.
“The Philippine Immigration Act is a very old law – 80 years old, to be exact,” BI Commissioner Jaime Morente said in a statement.
“I have talked to the President and raised this concern to him,” he said.
Since the law was enacted during a time when no international flights were entering and leaving the country, Morente said “many of its provisions are already outdated and inappropriate.”
Essentially, the proposal to update the law, which is already in Congress, would “answer salary woes, remove systemic issues, plug loopholes in policies, update fines and penalties, ensure division of power and confer on the Commissioner proper disciplinary powers.”
The need to reexamine the law cropped up as the BI is mired in controversy, with 86 of its officials and personnel investigated and charged with corruption before the Office of the Ombudsman.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) found prima facie evidence to charge the BI personnel for accepting bribes in exchange for ushering in multitudes of Chinese nationals and other foreigners through Philippine airports.
The payoffs were concealed in bond paper strips resembling the milky Filipino sweets, thus the ingenious scheme is referred to as “pastillas.”
Last Monday at Malacañang, President Duterte summoned 40 immigration personnel tagged in the scheme and ordered them to eat peso bills rolled in pastillas wrapper – his way of sending a stern warning to all government employees to keep off anomalous activities.
“The President has given them his advice, that corruption should really be put to a stop. His move to give ‘pastillas’ – that’s also symbolic of his anger against corruption,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
“Just like what I said, (the President) did not force them (to swallow the bills). But I think the message has been received, because not a single person out of the 40 individuals there uttered even a single word,” he said.
Earlier, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra gave similar details of what transpired in the meeting with Duterte, but did not mention whether or not any of the suspended BI personnel actually chewed on the bills.
Some of the 86 BI employees implicated in the scheme have already been fired.
Morente said: “We can remove people again and again, but the loopholes in the law remain. Quick wins may cure some symptoms in the anti-corruption drive but a responsive new immigration law may yet cure systemic problems that breed corruption.”
The BI chief had declared earlier that under the existing law, he has no disciplinary powers over erring personnel, as “the power to hire and fire” rests with the Secretary of Justice.
The BI is an attached agency of the Department of Justice.
Roque said that even the President’s hands are tied in terms of directly disciplining erring immigration personnel.
“Well, you know, as President and because of the separation of powers of Executive and Judicial branches of government, the most that the President can impose by way of penalty is to remove them from service,” he said.
“And that is what’s happening – remove them from the service or impose suspension on them,” he added.
Roque underscored that the President’s order to pursue charges against erring immigration personnel is clear.
Meantime, a three-tier approach to solving corruption in the bureau is in place. The first two approaches have already been implemented: the relief all those found involved in corrupt practices and a one-strike policy for anyone who tries to follow suit.
Morente admitted, however, that these are short-term solutions. The medium-term solution is reorganizing the system, by adding layers of checks and balances.
“We have transferred the supervision of the Travel Control and Intelligence Unit (TCIU) and the Border Control and Intelligence Unit (BCIU) under a different division,” Morente said.
“This will serve as a sort of audit to the actions of those in the Port Operations Division (POD) and dismantle any semblance of a central control of possible illegal activities. It adds more eyes watching and auditing the activities of airport personnel,” he added.
Still, amending the Philippine Immigration Act is considered by Morente as the real and long-term solution to BI’s corruption woes. – Christina Mendez