The indignity of the U.S. travel bans is not about our politicians

"All of us, as Filipinos, should feel the indignity," said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra in a rare outburst, with the uncharacteristic cuss word, when he reacted to the news that US President Donald Trump had approved the US 2020 budget that contains a provision giving the State Department the go-signal to deny entry to the jailers of opposition Senator Leila de Lima.

It's not easy for me to react quickly. I can't decide where to stand.

From a human rights lens, and with the Magnitsky Act in the horizon, it's worth noting that this move from the United States is a positive sign that the international community can have teeth and clout when it comes to injustice outside its jurisdiction.  (READ: What we know so far: Proposed U.S. sanctions vs PH officials in drug war)

From a diplomacy lens, as pointed out by Foreign Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin, "it is an aspect of sovereignty."

Because it's true, it is within the United States' sovereign power to block entry to anyone it wishes to. 

But my migration framework prevents me from unequivocally saying that.

Whose immigration laws are more 'limiting'?

Aside from the Magnitsky Act, the US Immigration and Nationality Act empowers state authorities to deny entry to “participants in Nazi persecutions, genocide or the commission of any act of torture or extrajudicial killing," as pointed out by US-based Filipino immigration lawyer Rodel Rodis in his piece for the Inquirer.

A US Senate resolution – separate from the amendment to the US budget to cover De Lima jailers – has specifically invoked the Magnitsky Act to ban entry to government officials responsible for extrajudicial killings.  (READ: Why the Global Magnitsky Act matters to the Philippines)

The Immigration Law covers a broader net – it prevents US entry for "any alien, who, outside the United States, has committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the commission of any extrajudicial killing."

In the Philippines, Party of European Socialists (PES) official Giacomo Filibeck was barred entry for supposedly engaging in partisan politics here.

Passed in 2015, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) has Operation Order No. SBM-2015-025, "which prohibits foreigners from joining, supporting, contributing or involving themselves in whatever manner in any rally, assembly, or gathering whether for or against the government."

This was the same ordinance imposed on Sister Patricia Fox, an Australian missionary nun that earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte for her grassroots work of defending marginalized sectors.

Sister Fox's case went through several routes, until the BI resorted to downgrading her missionary visa to a tourist visa, and then refusing to extend her tourist visa, to be able to successfully kick her out of the country.

"US can refuse visas to anyone it wants for any reason, the Philippines deported a nun in that way," Locsin said.

But should it be as simple as a "what we can do to others, they can also do to us" issue?

I don't believe so. 

Because I feel the indignity, not necessarily for Sister Fox, and definitely not for our politicians, but for the way that immigration laws around the world – including ours – have restricted and repressed voiceless migrants.


Everyone who has ever been denied of a US visa would tell you the only reason given to them by the consulate is that it violates their Immigration Laws.

I, for one, was denied a US visa and when I pressed what section of their law I violated, the consulate could tell me none. "It's a broad law," he said, in a tone that meant to tell me, I have no right to demand specific details, there were more people in line, so If I could just please leave.

But he's right, their Immigration Law is 507 sections long, encapsulated in information slides showed all over the embassy if you apply for a visa – you are presumed to have immigrant intent, unless otherwise proven.

That's not to say, however, that ours is any fairer.

We have a persisting rule on quota visas, under which only certain nationalities can apply for permanent residence here. The list excludes, for example, India and Taiwan.

It has left many children of Indian and Taiwanese parents without Filipino status and privileges, even though they were born here, studied here, and dedicated their careers here.

I once wrote the story of a baby born to Filipino parents in England, but who had to be sent back to the Philippines and separated for years from her mother, because staying there would have exposed her mom whose only way of providing was to earn British pounds.

The Duterte administration was also criticized for not standing by former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales when they were barred from entry to Hong Kong, presumably because of their International Criminal Court (ICC) suit against Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But who is standing by the ordinary Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who are denied entry to their country of choice, where they intend to scrape just enough foreign currencies to send something to a longing child back home. 

Not about the people 

So am I indignant over the US travel bans? 

Sure, but not because it's an interference in our domestic affairs, as administration supporters would have you believe, but because around the world, time and time again, politics has held migration hostage.

As these travel bans show, migration has become more about governments and politics, than it is about people.

And all of us, as people, whatever nationality you are, should feel the indignity. –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.