Immigration in the Philippines is a big business, touching just about every citizen at least in some small way. In fact, for tens of millions of Filipinos, the Holy Grail of getting a work visa abroad means that they have the chance for a better life not only for them but their immediate family and even generations to come. We’re not just talking about moving abroad and getting rich or becoming a doctor or something, either. Filipinos most commonly emigrate to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, England, Germany, Dubai, the UAE, and yes, even the United States, forging their futures with menial jobs as housekeepers, domestic helpers, call center employees, and nurses and navy men. But being able to get ANYWHERE means that they can work tirelessly, sacrifice greatly, and send money back home for their mother to buy a home, or their sister to go to college.
I keep this in mind every time I go to the immigration office in Dumaguete because we foreigners have to go through a process of officially being granted a stay in the Philippines, too. As usual in the country of 7,500 islands, mass corruption, and even more prevalent confusion, just getting the right info about visas can be frustrating.
Luckily, we have one of the best and smoothly functioning immigration offices in all of the Philippines right here in Dumaguete. A lot of foreigners and even Filipinos make the trip to Dumaguete from places like Cebu, Bacolod, Davao, and other islands just because our little immigration office has a sterling reputation.
With all of that fanfare, don’t expect too much in the aesthetics department when you first visit the Dumaguete Immigration Office. Located on Locsin Street a block up and round the corner from Lee Plaza, you literally would never find it unless you know its there (or ask any trike driver). To get to the office, you have to navigate the busy lineup of shops and stores, and then find a very narrow nearly-unmarked opening. Going down this dark alley (literally!) with little shop fronts on either side, you’ll pass a bakery, an English school, a natural food store, a copy shop, and, finally, you reach the immigration office door all the way back on the left.
Inside, it doesn’t get much prettier, with complete wood paneling floor to ceiling like a 19602 ski lodge, dingy greenish carpet, a waiting area that has a busted couch held together with duct tape (not joking!) and stern metal desks. The smiling yet overwhelmed workers sit amidst ceiling-high stacks of boxes, files, folders, and applications.
But despite this appearance, the office is one of the best functioning in all of the Philippines. I seriously can’t give the staff enough credit because they are polite, knowledgeable, friendly, helpful, and always patient. They have to be, with hundreds or even thousands of applications coming through their office every month, many of them from foreigners who are staying, living, or trying to establish permanent residency in the Philippines.
After a couple of trips there (I’ve had to renew my tourist visa after 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, and then 1 more month, progressively) I now trust them implicitly, and take their word as gospel. Recently, I was thinking about overstaying my visa by nine days because I was leaving the country, so I thought I could just pay the fine at the airport. But when I went to check with the tourist office, the wonderful lady working there explained that they would charge me the overstay, the new visa price, and could even flag my passport and make me miss my flight!
When it comes to bureaucracy and paperwork, the Philippines can be a chaotic quagmire, so I have to give huge credit and respect to the Dumaguete immigration office!