POSTSCRIPT / May 20, 1999 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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US visas for VFA approval? Not true!

WHAT you’ve probably heard – that there’s a fire sale of US visas in Manila – is not true.

US Consul General Caryl Courtney had to meet the press Wednesday to dispel talk that the US embassy had relaxed the rules as some kind of public relations to help gain approval by the Senate of the controversial RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

“While we want to see it (VFA) pass, there is no connection,” the lady consul said. But true or not, the rumor has spread like an Internet computer virus, swelling the lines of visa applicants at the embassy grounds on Roxas Blvd.

Between May 1 and 17, the embassy counted 7,180 applicants for non-immigrant visas. That’s a record 56-percent increase over the number (4,582) in the same period last year.

To show that the consulate is not suddenly stricken with fits of generosity, Courtney said the refusal rate is 57.77 percent, meaning that an applicant has a more than even chance of not getting the visa of his dreams.

The embassy has some 600,000 pending applications for temporary visitor’s visas, making Manila the topnotcher worldwide, elbowing out Mexico where many natives regard going to America as merely going back home. (Before the European immigrants went West, that vast area up there used to be part of what Mexicans regarded as ancestral lands.)

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NOWADAYS, the area in front of the US embassy is periodically invaded by anti-VFA demonstrators clashing with riot policemen. The tragi-comic spectacle sees rowdy demonstrators meshing into the long lines of visa applicants and the vehicles crawling on the bayside boulevard.

Some applicants arrive at the embassy gate as early as 3 a.m. to stake out their place on the line aforming. Since processing cannot be guaranteed on the day the applicant goes to the embassy, some visa-seekers camp in the area for two to three days.

Others pay P500 to P1,000 to enterprising “standbys,” people who hang around in the area to get early choice slots on the line and sell them to late applicants.

Ambulant vendors service the applicants lining up. You name it, they have it: newspapers, candies, cigarettes, ball pens, passport holders, sandwiches, soda… If you have to affix your thumb mark hurriedly on some document or staple some papers together, they have stamp pads and staplers on the ready – for a fee.

Restaurants, travel agencies and watch-your-car boys across the street from the embassy are reporting good business.

When the applicant finally gets into the process, he pays a non-refundable $45 fee to the embassy. This has discouraged adventurers who used to apply and rely on the law of averages to be able to get a visa by accident.

* * *

MAYBE the VFA angle is just part of the story. The British, Australian and Canadian embassies are also reporting an upsurge in the number of Filipinos applying for visas.

The fact is that even without the campaign for VFA approval, a great number of Filipinos are willing to suffer inconvenience, even indignities, to try their luck at the US embassy.

Professional critics readily see the seeming exodus as a sign that the natives are sensing bad times ahead, what with the obvious lack of direction of the new administration and the failure of President Estrada to show even just a hint of being able to improve the lot of his beloved masa.

The US embassy is asking the head office for more funds and personnel to be able to handle more efficiently the flood of visa applicants splashing on the gates of the consulate.

Some years back, they installed bulletproof glass for the consular staff interviewing applicants. The measure was taken after a frustrated applicant whipped out a gun and shot the interviewer who rejected his application.

* * *

DESPITE high-tech anti-counterfeiting measures, Filipino masters still manage to produce fake passports and American visas that look like the real thing. These are sold for a minor fortune to desperate Filipinos who still have faith in the skill and creativity of their fellows.

The police said that local counterfeit artists are just a few months behind their counterparts on the government side. Give them time and they catch up on the genuine documents.

Allied support industries include the manufacturing of fake land titles, school records, income tax returns, birth certificates and a myriad of other documents that an applicant might just need to convince the consul that he has a valid reason for visiting the US, that he has the means to travel, and compelling reasons to come back to Manila.

The racket on fake documents has grown so absurd that US consuls generally do not look at the pile of documents that applicants carry with them like they just cleaned out a filing cabinet.

Some try too hard to impress the consul that they have ample means to travel. They rent expensive looking clothes and jewelry for the day, but their carriage usually give them away.

* * *

THE game has gotten so topsy-turvy that some interviewers appear to make their decisions (to grant or reject) during those few seconds that the applicant moves to his window.

Dejected applicants lament that first impression sometimes takes the place of the interview and the examination of supporting papers. They cry that that is patently unfair.

But what can we do? It’s their country and their law gives them the discretion of granting visitors’ visas.

In fact, the immigration law itself operates on the assumption that the visa applicant intends to stay on. The burden of proving that he will not stay but will go back home rests heavily on the applicant.

Alas, the assumption is supported by statistic. Even members of delegations to conventions of reputable civic organizations are known to have disappeared into the vast American landscape after they show up for a few minutes at the convention site.

Filipinos can only ask why their neighbors the Japanese, for instance, are not subjected to the same searing scrutiny and are allowed visa-free visits to the States.

We know the answer to that. But we won’t discuss it

with non-Filipinos listening. Nakakahiya!

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 20, 1999)

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