For ₱10,000, Chinese nationals get VIP treatment from immigration – Hontiveros

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Senator Risa Hontiveros says the "pastillas" scheme, where immigration officials accept grease money from Chinese nationals so they can enter the country with ease, is now worth ₱1 billion.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 17) — Senator Risa Hontiveros on Monday exposed a scheme that she said involves Bureau of Immigration officials who allow Chinese nationals to enter the country with ease for a fee.

The chairperson of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality said Chinese nationals who pay ₱10,000 as "service fee" or grease money are given special treatment as they enter the Philippines.

READ: Chinese nationals top immigration bureau’s list of rude foreigners barred entry for second year running

She showed during her committee's hearing several Viber screenshots of a group chat of immigration officers where long lists of names of foreigners are sent each day. Once the Chinese national arrives, the immigration officer on duty would leave his booth and tell the foreigner "follow me," where they will then get their passports processed for entry. This is a departure from the standard practice where all foreigners are screened through the Immigration booths in ports, Hontiveros pointed out.

The senator said this scheme is worth about ₱1 billion, computed from about 2,000 Chinese citizens entering the Philippines per day. Citing data from her "informant," she outlined how the money is divided. She said only ₱2,000 paid by each foreigner goes to immigration officers on the ground, while the remainder is split among the foreign tour operator, its partner in the Philippines, and the syndicate running the entire ploy in local airports.

Six people share the ₱2,000, with a third going to the assigned Immigration officer. The operation is called "pastillas" because money would be hidden in rolled bond paper like the wrapping for the milk candy. But Hontiveros said this has been upgraded to pay envelopes for the release of kickbacks.

Apart from these payouts, Chinese companies also provided packed meals for the officers. Hontiveros said this only stopped a few weeks ago when the Philippine government implemented a travel ban to and from China due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

READ: PH suspends issuance of visa on arrival to Chinese nationals amid coronavirus alarm

Immigration officers present during the Monday hearing denied knowing this protocol, saying it was their first time to hear about it. But Hontiveros was not convinced.

"Somebody rigged the system, centralized the operations, and made this into a billion-peso enterprise," the senator said, noting that there could be a highly-placed protector that allows the scheme to prevail to this day. "Somebody sold our country's borders for Chinese money."

READ: Immigration to resume stamping China passports with nine-dash-line map

Grifton Medina, acting chief of the bureau's Port Operations Division, said reforms have been installed since he took office in November 2018. But for Hontiveros, his team is not trying hard enough to curb corruption among their ranks. BI said the issue would be taken up with Commissioner Jaime Morente for appropriate action.

Hontiveros added that the Senate will further investigate the issue.