Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's All In The I-Cards

I guess with my luck it would be too much to expect  that two successive annual trips to the Bureau of Immigration to pay the annual report, (a P310  yearly "head tax" required of resident alien residents), would go off without a hitch.. On two such treks, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, I was robbed and pickpocketed respectively en route. Fortunately I had no such incidents in 2011.

This year, I did not wind up a crime victim when I went to the satellite office in Makati a few weeks ago. But almost as bad was the news from that office. They would be unable to process the annual report for my wife Lydia because unbeknownst to us, her ACR-ICR I-card had expired. This biometric piece of plastic with an embedded computer chip serves mainly as a form of identity and streamlines many of the cardholder's B.I. dealings. All foreign permanent residents in the Philippines are required to have one. Unfortunately, Lydia's and my cards don't show an expiration date which we learned is 5 years from the date of issue. According to Immigration, the newer "models" now display this ending date.

Obtaining a replacement requires a trip to the main B.I. headquarters in Manila (Intramuros district). It was with  extreme trepidation that I faced the prospect of going to that office.  I recalled from years past how decrepit and poorly maintained the facilities were, with a matching attitude of its employees.  But at least Lydia wouldn't have to endure  this hassle.  As a senior, she is exempted by Immigration from such appearances . As her spouse, I could do that for her.

My last visit to B.I. headquarters was about four years ago. So when I arrived there yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the place had improved. The exterior had been given a facelift, but more importantly, the inside given a complete renovation, including the C.R's.(restrooms) which previously could only have been  described as abominable, and that's putting it nicely.  The customer service also seems friendlier, and there are roving information reps to answer questions and direct applicants to the appropriate areas.

When  I arrived at about 6:30 a.m, there were already people seated waiting for the service windows to open at 7:00. Within a few hours the place was packed. (Unfortunately, the interior makeover didn't include adding more space).   Woe unto those who arrive late.  Not only will there be fewer or no seats left  but their waiting time for service will be much longer. This is why it's essential to arrive as early as possible; You snooze, you lose.  Yet, even though I was among the first batch of people to be serviced, the entire process still took about 3 1/2 hours. (Note: B.I. transactions differ in complexity. Your time may vary. So take along something to pass the hour(s). And due to the above mentioned  physical space limitations and seating,  it's advisable to limit the number of your companions.)

Speaking of batches, one reason for the long wait is that when applicants turn in their forms to the clerks at the service windows for processing, as the forms are completed, they are placed in a pile.  A department worker then emerges  with the stack and calls out the names of and distributes these forms to those who are awaiting them.Obviously, it's important to stand by and not to miss such a "call out" announcement.  The next one may not be for another 45 minutes or so   Then it's on  the next window to start the process all over again.   

Finally I was finished.  It was such a feeling of relief knowing that not only had I completed this task  but also that Lydia's annual report fee was also automatically collected upon payment for the card. I was given a claim check to present when picking up the new card, which should be available in about three weeks.

Right about that time, my own I-card will near its expiration date, so when I retrieve Lydia's card. I can also renew mine as well. Hopefully, it will take less time to go through the mill the second time around.  For despite the improvement in service, there were a few missteps including procedural miscommunications that I now know to avoid.  I wouldn't say that I'm looking forward to going back there, but with the Bureau of Immigration's new look and feel, at least I no longer dread it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Big Bang

The numbers are in.  Metro-Manila deaths and injuries over the New Years holiday from  fireworks mishaps and stray bullets were overall greater than last year's figures despite hopes by the authorities  for a decrease in such casualties.

Adding to this sad state of affairs this year on which should be a festive occasion was the extreme air pollution on New Years morning. This was caused by the soot and ashes drifting over the city from the large number of firecrackers that celebrators began setting off  in the morning of Dec. 31. This smog is a yearly event, but due to wind conditions, this year visibility was so severely hampered that incoming air traffic had to be diverted from the Aquino International Airport to other facilities

So given the hazards posed by pyrotechnics, should they be banned from Metro Manila except as authorized public display events? At first glance, that seems like the impossible dream. Fireworks, especially individual use of firecrackers to celebrate various holidays, are a deeply ingrained tradition in the Philippines.  Stemming from  centuries old Chinese cultural influence, the custom was originally based on the belief that the loud noise from firecrackers would drive away evil spirits. But now they are simply a source of holiday fun, sometimes the malicious kind. In the rough parts of Manila, revelers even throw lit firecrackers at passersby.

This leads to another difficulty in enacting a ban on private possession: the lack of public discipline in Philippine society. There are probably as  many safety laws on the books in the here as there are in Denmark. But they're nearly impossible  to enforce when so few people obey them and public officials charged with enforcing them are bribed to look the other way. So  would a statute banning these explosives be worthless? 

Not necessarily. Believe it or not, there are firecracker-free zones in the Philippines. One of them is Davao City (population approx 1.5 million) where 94 people were arrested for violating the prohibition and which had zero injuries caused by fireworks over the holiday and as a result, hospitals there were not swamped as they were in Metro-Manila.

To be sure,  the problem of dangerous fireworks is just one of many problems besetting Metro-Manila. However,  solving them requires the exercise of political will. Maybe imposing a ban and actually implementing it might send a message that the government is getting serious about improving public safety by penalizing personal irresponsibility.  It would be a small step, but at least it's one in the right direction.