It took the coronavirus pandemic for many former Filipinos to realize the importance of holding a dual citizenship.
The Philippine government temporarily banned the entry of foreigners and suspended the Balikbayan program and other visa-free entry privileges last March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to this suspension, former Filipinos traveling on US passports were allowed to enter the Philippines and stay there for a maximum of one year without a visa under the aforementioned Balikbayan program.
Because of the program’s suspension and the temporary restrictions set forth by the Philippine government, thousands of former Filipinos have filed dual citizenship and passport applications with the Philippine Embassy and Consulates across the United States to be able to travel to the Philippines as Filipino citizens.
In her first ConGen Hour with members of the Filipino American Press Club of New York, newly arrived Consul General Petronila P. Garcia said they are working to meet the requirements of the community.
“There is still a mandatory appointment system but the consulate is working hard to expand its ability to process consular documents and applications,” ConGen Garcia said.
“It is about balancing the safety and wellbeing of everyone, we have instituted measures in order to continue the services we offer.”
According to Garcia, there was a spike in the appointment for dual citizenship applications and that they are already fully booked up to the end of January 2021.
“We continue to prioritize emergencies even if they do not have appointments and we are adjusting as this is a new phenomenon to all of us,” she said.
Garcia shared that there is a 450 person waiting list but they are hoping to process these applications in a shorter amount of time. She cited the fact that because of city and state health regulations, they limited the number of people who can be physically accommodated in consulate premises, slowing down processing times and creating backlogs that they are working hard to address.
The consulate will also be implementing a Consulate Saturday where they will be open one Saturday a month. For November, that Saturday is on November 14.
ConGen Garcia says she looks forward to continuing cultural engagement and the consulate’s traditional projects virtually, including a modified Simbang Gabi, an annual consulate project that community members look forward to during the holiday season.
Despite the pandemic, the consulate already has a full calendar of events in the coming months.
“We need to ensure that our clients and our employees as well, are not unnecessarily exposed. We are not out of the woods yet as we are seeing signs of a second wave and we ask you for your understanding and cooperation,” Garcia said as she explained how the pandemic has affected the consulate.
Because of the lockdowns, quarantine rules, and indications of rising COVID-19 infections across the country this fall, some of the consulate’s programs have been suspended as well, including the holding of consular outreach missions.
The Philippine Embassy and Consulates General in the United States are actively taking steps to meet the surge in demand not just for for dual citizenship but also for passport and visa services, both of which also registering spikes.
According to a news release from the Embassy, the steps being undertaken vary from post to post, depending on the local conditions and state restrictions.
These steps may include increasing the number of appointment slots, operating on weekends, and assigning more personnel to process applications and answer phone, e-mail, and social media queries, among other measures.
The adjustments are being made in coordination with the Department of Foreign Affairs as pandemic-related restrictions and stringent health requirements, both in the Philippines and the United States, continue to put pressure on Posts’ consular operations.
“We understand our clients’ frustration over the impact of the pandemic on our consular operations. We wish to assure them that we are aware of their concerns and we are doing everything we can to continue delivering critical services in the safest and most efficient way possible during these challenging times,” Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said in a statement.
“For us in the frontlines, this is a delicate balancing act between the need to fulfill our public service mandate and to ensure the health and safety of our clients and personnel. We appeal to the public for your understanding, and please bear with us as we try to deal with this evolving situation,” Romualdez added.
The ambassador also appealed to Filipinos to postpone their travel plans for now.
“If you can put your travel plans on hold for the meantime, please do so,” he said. “I know this might be hard as the Christmas season is upon us, but these measures and regulations have been put in place to keep all of us safe from the pandemic. Only with everyone’s cooperation will we be able to defeat this pandemic that has already claimed more than a million lives worldwide and changed the course of our future.
A career diplomat with the rank of Chief of Mission I, Garcia has served the government for 40 years. She previously served as the Philippine Ambassador to Canada from January 2014 to September 2020, becoming the first female Philippine Ambassador to Canada since diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1949.
She also served as the Philippine Ambassador to Israel from 2007 to 2011 and the first woman Ambassador assigned by the Philippines to an Arab country, the Arab Republic of Egypt, with concurrent jurisdiction over Sudan from 2004 to 2007.
Garcia joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1981, after passing the Foreign Service Officer’s examination. She also passed the Career Minister’s examination in 1994. She replaced Ambassador Claro S. Cristobal who retired from the service.
Garcia shared that among her memorable experiences in her four decades of service, she counts extracting 121 Filipinos from Gaza and bringing them to safety all the way from Israel to Jordan was among the more memorable ones. She said she is looking forward to meeting the Filipino American community members in the northeast.
“It is a big privilege to work here as Consul General and I look forward to serving the community. These are strange times, no one foresaw the social and economic upheaval that would follow,” she said. “I have an open door, I will engage with the media and the community members.”