Diet OKs bills to up foreigner controls

by Minoru Matsutani

The Diet passed bills Wednesday that tighten controls on foreign residents, paving the way for them to take effect within three years, despite opposition from foreigners and human rights activists.

The planned enforcement follows an agreement on the bills reached last month between the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party.

The bills, which cleared an Upper House plenary session, will abolish the Alien Registration Act and revise immigration control and resident registration laws.

The revision will shift authority to manage foreign residents from municipalities to the Immigration Bureau and enable it to consolidate the personal information of foreign residents, including name, address, type of visa and expiration date, making it easier for the bureau to detect illegal residents.

“Currently, it is difficult to fully grasp where foreign residents live, so we need to change that,” LDP lawmaker Ryuji Matsumura, a board member of the Upper House Judicial Affairs Committee, said after the chamber passed the bills. “In other countries, including the U.S., France, Britain, Germany and South Korea, governments keep such personal information on foreign residents.”

Rights activists condemned the bills for excessively tightening controls on foreigners.

“We will keep fighting against the enforcement of the bills in municipalities, the Diet and the United Nations, seeking cooperation from nongovernmental organizations in Japan and the world,” said Nobuyuki Sato, representative of Research-Action Institute for the Koreans in Japan, which wants the bills abolished.

Currently, municipalities issue alien registration cards to foreigners overstaying their visas even though they are aware of the illegal status. By registering them, the municipalities can send them notices of various public services, including public school enrollment and medical services for children and pregnant women.

The Immigration Bureau and lawmakers worked out the bills to reduce the number of undocumented foreign residents, which the bureau estimates total about 110,000.

Human rights activists, including Akira Hatate, director of the nongovernmental organization Japan Civil Liberties Union, said that instead of focusing on reducing the number of illegal residents, the government should treat overstayers as members of society that can help the country prosper.

The United States has an estimated 13 million illegal aliens, he noted, citing information from the American Civil Liberties Union. The European Union is thought to have had about 8 million in recent years, Hatate added.

“In the U.S. and Europe, it is natural to have a certain number of overstaying foreigners,” he said. “Japan is extremely strict.”

According to the bills, undocumented foreigners will either be granted special permits to stay or taken into custody for deportation. Many are expected to go into hiding to avoid such a fate.

So overstaying residents with a legitimate reason for remaining in the country are not deported, the bills stipulate the Justice Ministry, which oversees the Immigration Bureau, must clarify and announce the standard for granting special permits to stay.

Foreigners’ rights advocates claimed overstayers will not turn themselves in unless they are sure they will get the permit.

Since 2003, an average of about 10,000 foreigners have been granted special permits to stay, according to the Immigration Bureau. Granting the permit is entirely at the Justice Ministry’s discretion.

The bills will also introduce a new form of identification called a “zairyu” (residence card) to replace the current alien registration cards, and code numbers on them will be kept by the Justice Ministry.

Under the bills, foreign residents will be listed on the resident registry network, a computer network connecting municipalities and containing demographic information on Japanese residents.

The bills will extend the normal duration of visas from the current three years to five. Also, foreigners will no longer be required to obtain a re-entry permit if they return to Japan within a year of leaving the country.

On the other hand, punishments for failing to report address and other personal information will become harsher. To prevent fake marriages, the bills grant the justice minister the power to cancel a spouse visa from those who have failed to conduct for six months without a legitimate reason “activities spouses normally do.”

The bills also oblige the government to review the new immigration law and make necessary changes in three years from its enforcement.