By Andrew J. Masigan

Immigration congestion explained

Posted on June 20, 2017

FOR nearly seven months now, passengers departing from and arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) have had to contend with massive congestion for immigration clearance. Horror stories of two-hour waiting time and images of kilometric lines have caused both the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) and the Bureau of Immigration (BI) to be the subject of public hate. Both agencies are accused of being incompetent and insensitive to public suffering, among other acerbic accusations.

Last week, I reached out to the airport authority to get to the bottom of the issue. I sat down with Hazel Barroso, the Bureau of Immigration’s deputy chief for Administration at NAIA, to get the BI’s side of the story. The problem, I discovered, is more complex than meets the eye.

First off, it must be said that the problem is not within the scope of responsibility of MIAA. Despite the common perception that all aspects NAIA’s operations are under the airport authority’s purview, its responsibilities are in fact limited to just runway management, facilities management, and general administration. While the Bureau of Immigration operates within the NAIA complex, it functions with absolute autonomy in the same manner as the Bureau of Customs, Quarantine, and the Airport Security Group does. That said, MIAA is not responsible for this mess.

The problem lies in the salary scales of the immigration officers. See, immigration officers are classified to have a salary grade of 13 according to the civil servants code. This merits them a basic pay of P11,000 to P13,000 per month, net of tax. It is a pay scale that has been left by time and is now rendered a pittance considering the academic credentials and scope of responsibilities required of them.

Since the mid ’90s, immigration officers’ salaries were augmented by what has become known as “overtime pay.” The term “overtime pay” is a misnomer as it is in fact an allowance provided by the airline companies to compensate for a third shift of immigration services. Back then, a third shift was necessary to accommodate more frequent midnight to morning flights. The allowance ranged from P30,000 to P40,0000 pesos per month, depending on work hours.

Sometime in 2012, however, airline companies cried foul as abuses to the allowance became rampant. Irrefutable evidence of ghost employees, multiple reimbursements for food appropriations, and padding of work hours were presented to the BI, the Department of Budget and Management, and the Department of Tourism. The airline companies sought to end the subsidy not only for the abuses but also because Manila was the only port of call where they were made to pay for immigration services, a cost of which should otherwise be borne by the state. The airline companies were subsequently relieved of the obligation despite a legal tussle that ensued between the parties involved.

To plug the revenue gap, the BI utilized the revenues derived from its express lane operations to subsidize the allowances of immigration officers. This went on for several years, up until the Duterte administration.

Last Jan. 1, however, the BI waived all fees for express lane services in line with President Duterte’s mandate not to make the public pay for fast and efficient government services. Simultaneously, the DBM issued a directive mandating the BI to remit all revenues-after-direct expenses to the National Treasury. The succession of policies dried up the sources of funds for the allowances. Since then, our immigration officers have been subsisting on a salary of P13,000 a month.

A spate of resignations followed. Those that remained took advantage of their sick and vacation leaves, presumably to look for other sources of income. They have families to feed too.

At the height of the summer months, the number of immigration officers plummeted from an average of 15 officers for arrivals and departures, respectively, to as little as four. This was true in all three of NAIA’s international terminals. The toxic combination of peak season traffic coupled with a dearth of immigration officers was the cause for the congestion. The BI even cut individual processing times from 45 seconds to just 30 seconds to cope with the traffic but to no avail.

The situation improved marginally as 35 newly certified immigration officers were deployed at NAIA last June 6. Another batch of 50 officers are scheduled to come on board on July 15 and yet another in September. Unfortunately, this is just a band aid solution. The strain on recruitment and mass resignations due to low salaries will continue to fester unless pay scales are elevated.

Over the years, the Bureau of Immigration has submitted numerous petitions to congress to elevate the salary grades of our immigration officers, among other reforms. It never passed as legislators were lulled to complacency by the airline subsidies and express lane revenues. Congress’ inaction is now biting us in the back.

The BI, through its sponsor solons, Congressmen Raynaldo Umali and Maximo Rodriguez, filed a consolidated version of previously submitted reform bills called the Philippine Immigration and Alien Registration Act of 2017. Incorporated in this bill is another petition to elevate immigration officer’s salary grades. The bill was also certified urgent by the President given the stress of the situation. Let’s hope it passes this time. Its approval will put this issue to rest, at least for the next few years.

Meanwhile, the public must realize that the immigration congestion is neither the fault of MIAA nor the immigration officers. On the contrary, our immigration officers must be honored for sticking it out despite being overworked, maligned, and not receiving enough compensation to cover even their daily transportation expense. They deserve our respect.

Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.