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The year of suffering the BI queue

By Benjamin Lim Vergara

Philippine Bureau of Immigration Image © philippineslifestyle.com

THE long queues at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in 2018 has become the major source of complaints of passengers, a lot of them feel aggravated or get annoyed as they worry of missing their flights.

The passengers on morning flight schedules were complaining of the long and slow queue movement at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) counters. An hour long queue time has become the norm for an arriving or departing passenger before they could reach the immigration booth.

Despite regular reminders urging the public to arrive at the airport three hours before their flights, these unfortunate souls still don’t know what the perfect time is to be at the country’s main gateway, since the hassle is no longer with the irritating and sometimes unnecessary security checks but with the immigration zone, where the near stagnant long lines made foreign and local passengers uneasy and prone to violence.

The Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), NAIA’s operator, could not help the folks suffering the queues at the immigration zones. Nevertheless, MIAA general manager Ed Monreal has deployed the Public Affairs personnel in case some of the passengers need assistance.

This dilemma came after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the transfer of the PhP1.2 billion Express Lane fee to the treasury, which was the source of the BI’s overtime pay. The NAIA immigration officers protested Duterte’s decision to disallow the use of the Express Lane fees for their allowances only to be told that they should just request the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for the payment of their overtime work.

DBM Secretary Benjamin Diokno assured the BI that PhP224.835,000 million has been appropriated in the budget specifically for overtime pay of its employees. Diokno said since there is a specific funding for the overtime pay of BI employees in the budget, there is no need to tap into the express lane funds.

Express Lane charges are additional costs being paid by a foreigner, who overstayed for a week or at least a month in the country, as well as to fast-track processing of his documents.

It was used as a source of funding to pay for the services of the bureau’s confidential agents, contractual employees, other job orders, and for overtime pay. Lower salary grade employees were the most affected by the presidential veto on the use of the express lane charges, particularly those receiving less than the minimum wage.

Marc Red Mariñas, then BI Port Operations Division chief, said with the suspension of overtime pay, several regular staff went on official leave of absence from six months to one year. The other personnel who opted to remain have always been absent or going under time, while others have resigned further depleting the BI’s manpower. Some of the regular employees who quit are lawyers fed up with the overtime issues.

Former Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd of the Department of Justice in a letter to the president pointed out that the elimination of express lane fees has serious implications in the delivery of the BI’s mandate.

“The deposit of express lane charges to the general fund will automatically result in the displacement of about 1,000 or 73 percent of the bureau’s workforce by next week. The only source of income of these BI personnel is the express lane fees. Without the express lane fees, they will automatically lose their jobs and will join the unemployed population of the country,” he said.

Aguirre, with immigration commissioners, and heads of the BI labor groups – Buklod and Immigration Officers Association of the Philippines – lobbied for the restoration of the funds.

Before the introduction of the electronic gates (e-gates) on July 2018, the long queues have become longer during peak hours from 10a.m. to noon, and from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Passengers of Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Air taking international flights were advised to check-in early at the NAIA Terminal 2 and Terminal 3, respectively, before their flight’s estimated time of departure due to insufficient staffing at the immigration counters.

Cebu Pacific Air spokesperson Charo Logarta-Lagamon has reacted about how passengers irritably commented to the NAIA congestion.

“Queue in immigration is beyond our control. We try to assist as much as we can though,” Logarta-Lagamon says.

On December 2017, Duterte allowed the Immigration to put the Express Lane Fees (ELF) into a “trust fund” for the payment of salaries and overtime of its employees.

According to Duterte, the trust fund, which will be subject to guidelines of the Commission on Audit and secretaries of Justice and Budget, will exist until Congress has enacted a new Immigration Modernization Law that will upgrade BI’s compensation system.

With the operation of e-gates at the NAIA in October this year, queue at the airport has been minimized. E-gates were introduced more than two months ago and have passed international standards for border control of arriving Filipinos.

Immigration Commissioner Jamie Morente recently said that the e-gates has shorten the processing time of Filipino travelers holding machine readable passports to only eight to 15 seconds per passengers from the previous 45 seconds.

With e-gates, it quickly reduces the volume of passengers during peak hours at the immigration.

Introduced by the International Air Transport Association called Fast Travel program, it simplify and efficiently improve the clearing processes. It also used in pinpointing citizens under watch list and or persons of interest in immigration formalities.

There are 13 e-gate machines that were put up in NAIA – five at NAIA 1, three units at NAIA 2, and five at NAIA 3. Mactan-Cebu will have five units, five at Clark ad three at Davao International Airport, and soon all airports in the country will be provided with e-gate machines.

This project was funded by the national government at PhP328,869,000.

“The intent is to speed up immigration process in terms of swiping of passports bio metrics and facial capturing. As our passengers get used to the process, the targeted 12 to 15 seconds timeline will be the norm. This innovation at the country’s main gateway is part of modern aviation culture. A step in the right direction,” says Philippine Airlines spokesperson Cielo Villaluna.

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Benjie Vergara
A veteran reporter covering the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. He is currently writing for Manila Times, the Philippines' oldest newspaper.

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