By Jim Bea Sampaga
Secretary Francisco “Nick” Acosta was a former Philippine Court of Appeals Associate Justice. He served the second-highest judicial court in the Philippines for more than a decade. In 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Sec. Acosta as the new chairperson of the Commission on Filipino Overseas (CFO).
Last month, Sec. Acosta visited Honolulu for a week as part of the CFO’s UGNAYAN Series where he discusses ways to strengthen Filipino connection and participation with local Filipino leaders and community. Hawaii Filipino Chronicle sat down with Sec. Acosta at the Philippine Consulate in Honolulu for a one-on-one exclusive interview discussing his endeavors in the first year of his term as chairperson of the CFO.
HFC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Why did you pursue law?
Acosta: I graduated from Saint Louis High School in Solano, Nueva Vizcaya. I took up both my pre-law and law degrees at San Beda College in Manila. I took the bar examinations in 1971 where I passed it. I initially went into law practice specializing in litigation, partly in corporate law. I also teach political law and legal ethics. I am a two-time bar examiner and I was with the judiciary, the Court of Appeals, for more than 10 years. I retired at the age of 70. One year later, President Duterte appointed me to this present position as the chairperson of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
I initially wanted to be a priest. I applied twice for the seminary but I was rejected because of their suspicion that I may not be able to finish my priesthood. Then, I wanted to be a soldier but a family doctor examined me and came up with the finding that I’m not physically fit to be a soldier. So I have no choice but to be a lawyer and follow the footsteps of my father who is was a former judge. I’ve been a lawyer ever since.
HFC: As a former Court of Appeals Associate Justice, how can you relate your previous position in your current position now as the chairperson and secretary of CFO?
Acosta: The only thing that I brought into this position is my discipline of study, knowing what I’m doing and for the first time in my life, initially I thought I didn’t know what I was getting into, I didn’t know why the president appointed me in this position because I never applied for it. But after completing a one year cycle in this position, I am starting to realize why I am here and find the satisfaction and gratification of somehow identifying with our modern-day heroes and contributing something for their interest and welfare.
HFC: Since your appointment in August 2018, what are the programs that you have established in CFO? What are your accomplishments so far as the chairperson of the commission?
Acosta: When I assumed office, I have to study what the commission is all about, its functions and mandates so that I precisely know if I’ll fit on the job. Fortunately, I have some assistance from able and honest employees within the organization to guide me as well as from some well-meaning friends. I also availed the services of the Development Academy of the Philippines.
I was advised to hit the ground running because I have a lot of grounds to cover. I had to strengthen the organization and see how we can expand present projects and enter a few projects that we can embark on.
It would be modesty on my part to say that I’ve accomplished something and it will be a false modesty also on my part to say that I’ve not done anything. I believe there are things that I have done so far. I have worked for a bigger budget so we can fund the underserved activities that we have.
Another initiative that I’d like to undertake is that there should be a Filipino Center where there is a large concentration of Filipinos abroad. In the strategic plan that was made for our commission, this project was highly recommended. It happens that Hawaii has a Filipino Community Center and I’ve been talking to its founder, Mr. Roland Casamina, when I arrive here a few days. We had a long discussion about the Filipino Center and I’m looking forward to a continuous dialogue with him. I know that our government will support the idea of having a Filipino Center where it will be a one-stop-shop for Filipinos abroad. It will be a cultural center and a museum where our fellow Filipinos are most welcome.
HFC: There are quite a lot of Filipino government agencies that handle and serve Filipinos abroad and it causes quite a confusion. Just to help clarify it to our readers, what exactly is the role and function of CFO?
Acosta: We, in CFO, are mandated to devise programs for the welfare and benefits of permanent migrants. Of course, we have the umbrella department that oversees everybody which is the Department of Foreign Affairs. I would say that our president has adopted the one-colonel approach in solving any of the problems. All agencies having to do with the interest and welfare of the migrants, will have to work together to accomplish the objective of protecting and promoting the interests of our kababayans abroad.
HFC: What are the main challenges that Overseas Filipinos are facing right now? How are you addressing those issues and challenges?
Acosta: The biggest concern right now regarding our migrants is illegal recruitment and human trafficking which all departments of the government are working together to prevent. The problem of human trafficking is a universal problem. It has become a very lucrative business. How is it addressed? Through the collective efforts of our government agencies which have organized the advocacy committee of which the CFO is the chair.
We have a 24/7 action hotline, which is 1343, where we receive reports of illegal trafficking and recruitment or suspicion of these activities which we immediately transmit to our law enforcement agencies.
Another concern is interracial marriages especially cultural and language barriers affecting them. It’s very gratifying to discover that although many of our kababayans suffered unexplainable hardships, they were able to survive. They are now helping their fellow countrymen who are new to this because migration still continues. That’s why I give my admiration to the Filipino communities abroad and I always repeat that the spirit of bayanihan still prevails.
HFC: Your visit here in Hawaii is part of the UGNAYAN sa US, a Filipino Overseas outreach visits by the CFO. What exactly is the UGNAYAN Series all about?
Acosta: We do this in order to support and empower our Filipino organizations abroad so that we can engage with the next generation of Filipinos. Many of them may have already lost their Filipino citizenship because they gained the citizenship of the country of their residence but they are still Filipinos. I would like to encourage you that the pride of Filipinos should be nourished and strengthen, go there and engage in your country and I know that once you’ll have sufficient and ample knowledge, you will be proud that you are Filipino.
Currently, we have a program that will interest the Filipino Youth abroad called the Youth Leaders in Diaspora (YouLeaD). We organize a group of Filipino youths from a particular area and we bring them to the Philippines for immersion, even for a short period of time. The purpose is to entice our youth and interest them in continuing their engagement with their country.
HFC: You mentioned earlier that you’ve met with Filipino community leaders here in Hawaii. Will you also be speaking with young Filipino leaders in Hawaii?
Acosta: We’ll be going to the University of Hawaii where I hope I’ll be able to meet young Filipinos and hear their concerns. In that way, we can better hone the YouLeaD program. I hope with the guidance of Filipinos abroad, especially the youth, they can contribute when it comes to our youth programs.
HFC: The Filipino youth in the Philippines is working hard to earn a degree and a job that won’t require them to look abroad for jobs and become an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). In theory, we might have fewer OFWs in the future and we all know that OFWs are a big part of the Philippine economy because of the amount of money they bring in to the country through remittances. In your opinion, how will the declining number of OFWs in the future affect our economy?
Acosta: It will be a very good sign that our economy has already reached the level where we can keep all our citizens in our country. This is the reverse of migration. I’m sure that we will be able to do it and it will not be very long. I am very confident about that. I would like to see it in my lifetime.
HFC: Regarding OFWs issues such as abuse cases and mass layoffs, what is the CFO’s role in these kinds of situations?
Acosta: We have what we call the assistance to nationals which is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Those situations do happen to permanent migrants but they are very rare
HFC: During President Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address, one of the top priorities is establishing the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers. What is your opinion about it?
Acosta: Its purpose is to provide more access and maximize the services that can be granted to our Overseas Contract Workers. Currently, our agencies tend to confuse people with which agency to go to have a certain appointment and what not. The proposed Department of OFW will eliminate such confusion. This is the first vision of the president because they are the more vulnerable sector of our migrant community.
Permanent migrants have voiced their concerns and asked why only OFWs are under the proposed department. In the proposed department, I don’t know where the permanent migrants are going to be. But wherever they are, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas will always be with them.
HFC: What message do you want to convey to prospective Filipinos planning to go overseas?
Acosta: Well, it’s the message that the president has always repeatedly imparted to us is for us to rise as a nation and achieve our dreams and aspirations. We should act as one with one objective.
WRITER’S NOTE: The interview transcription was condensed and edited for clarity. If you wish to know more about the one-on-one exclusive interview, please visit CFO’s Facebook page where they live-streamed the whole interview.