Immigration reform creates problems for foreign residents

by Shin Hara

Kyodo

Japan’s immigration control reform has proved to be fraught with pitfalls that could cause unwitting foreign residents to be expelled or face other serious problems.

The immigration control law was revised in July 2012, primarily to bolster the crackdown on cross-border terrorism-related activities. However, during its first year in force, the reform has caused various unexpected quandaries.

In January, a woman from Myanmar married to a Japanese man lost her permanent resident status after temporarily returning to her home country, because of a paperwork problem related to the reform.

Previously, foreign residents who left Japan for a temporary overseas stay were required to obtain prior permission for re-entry if they were to maintain their resident status. The reform has abolished this requirement, in principle, if the overseas stay is less than one year. Now, foreign residents only need to indicate their intention to return to Japan by ticking the appropriate box on the embarkation form submitted to passport control upon their departure.

However, the paperwork presents a pitfall.

The form filled in and submitted by the hapless Myanmar woman was one she had obtained previously, so it did not have the necessary box to tick.

When she submitted her travel documents and showed her return ticket to passport control on her departure, it was not pointed out to her that she needed to indicate on the embarkation card that she was planning to return.

When she arrived back at Haneda airport in Tokyo from Myanmar, the woman was denied re-entry. Thanks to her husband’s intervention, she was spared deportation and later regained her permanent residency.

Nonetheless, the couple emphasized that immigration officials should remind foreign residents of the risk they face if they do not fill out their embarkation form properly.

In another case, a foreigner who was staying in Japan to undergo vocational training was refused re-entry after inadvertently omitting to tick the necessary box when temporarily journeying overseas, according to the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization.

Noting that the change was intended to “enhance convenience for foreign residents,” an immigration control official at the Justice Ministry said that immigration bureaus across the country have been instructed to give foreign residents a reminder.

However, the ministry has no plans to revise the embarkation form or take other steps to prevent similar paperwork problems.

Meanwhile, the immigration control reform has apparently caused misunderstandings on the part of local governments about how to treat foreign residents.

This spring, a boy of Philippine nationality was barred from entering an elementary school in Gunma Prefecture because of his family’s illegal resident status.

The central government has allowed illegal immigrants to receive minimum administrative services, including education and some medical care, on humanitarian grounds. After the immigration reform, the government pledged to maintain leniency toward illegal immigrants.

However, many local governments erroneously believe the reform has stripped illegals of the right to receive administrative services.

Although the Filipino boy was eventually allowed to enter an elementary school, a similar incident occurred in Chiba Prefecture as well.

Foreign women married to Japanese men could also suffer unintended consequences of the reform.

To prevent marriages of convenience by foreigners seeking to obtain a work permit, the revised law prescribes that foreign spouses of Japanese nationals be deprived of their resident status if they live apart or otherwise fail to meet the requirements for married couples for six months or longer.

Fusae Oshita, a notary public in Yokohama, spoke of a case in which a Filipino woman married to a Japanese man who lived apart from him was forced to return to the Philippines because of the residency forfeiture rule. Foreign women separated from their Japanese husbands for legitimate reasons — in order to escape domestic violence, for example — could fall victim to this rule and be expelled from Japan, Oshita warned.

Pointing out that living together is not necessarily a prerequisite for married couples, Oshita said immigration authorities “should have a more open mind.”

The crop of problems that has emerged since the legal amendment is expected to increase calls for improvements in the run-up to the review of the revised law that is slated to be conducted three years after enforcement.

  • Rhoid Rager

    Is it such a strange idea that people should be able to live in peace anywhere they want in this world? Dangerously arrogant is the one who thinks he can control anothers destiny with mere paperwork. This system is bound to fail eventually, simply because policing others is a waste of energy and based on collectively insane ideas, like ‘countries’.

    • ume

      Well .. I don’t know about you, but Im glad that they are keeping those people (Ie terrorists who want to blow us all up in the name of religion) out. Im pretty grateful those people are being policed, actually.

      • Tizzerable

        I’m not really sure that Japan has to be worried about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. In case you hadn’t realised, the worst terrorist attack perpetrated on Japanese soil was by Japanese citizens. There are enough home-grown religious nuts.

        I also don’t think the Burmese woman referred to in the article was a terrorist threat either – although maybe you think anyone with slightly brown skin or just a healthy sun-tan is a potential Al-Qaeda operative.

        In fact, I think you should be concerned because while the immigration officials were getting in a flap about this particular case, they probably missed the real terrorist slipping into the country on a tourist visa.

        Anyway I don’t actually see how the current immigration system would stop a determined foreign terrorist. For example, I don’t see what good finger print records are once someone has actually blown themselves up. (A) Their fingers will most likely have been incinerated and (B) They’ll leave behind a recorded message as indication of their guilt anyway.

      • Rhoid Rager

        How about those that would blow us all up in the name of ‘national security’? lol!

  • DNALeri

    “Thanks to her husband’s intervention, she was spared deportation and later regained her permanent residency.”

    Aha, so if you have the right connections you get to stay, if not, your’re out? So, if she had been without a well-connected (or rich enough to hire a lawyer) husband, she would have been deported, right?

  • ume

    don’t want to sound unsympathetic here, but the fact someone cant read and fill in the proper paperwork is not the fault of the immigration reform.

    Also it seems strange to me that someone separated from their husband (even for DV, etc) would choose to be a visa dependent of him. There are other options, like the long term residence visa, or permanent residency status available to these women.

    Don’t blame the system for the laziness or ignorance of individuals, looking to avoid taking personal responsibility.

    • Guest

      “the fact someone cant read and fill in the proper paperwork is not the fault of the immigration reform”

      Disagree completely. It is the fault of the immigration reform that you can lose your hard-earned status simply by not ticking one box. That’s completely ludicrous and there’s no reason for that. It shouldn’t be that easy to lose your status.

      “There are other options, like the long term residence visa, or permanent residency status available to these women”

      I assume you’ve never tried to get PR status. It is anything but quick or easy to get.

      • ume

        You assume wrong – I actually do have PR, and a spouse and children here too.

        Therefore, I guard my PR very carefully, and would check, and double check both independently and with immigration staff on the way out of the country, that the forms were correctly filled in. It seems this woman was completely careless, and it was entirely her own fault. I have no sympathies at all.

        And PR is not quick or easy to get, granted, however if a woman has children in Japan, a switch from a spousal visa to either a working visa or a long term resident visa IS fairly simple. There is simply no excuse for not switching over, other than laziness.

        The new immigration reform have made things crystal clear – if your not actually married and living together, you do not get a visa granted to married couples. Seems very logical to me.

      • Tizzerable

        You’re missing the point. It’s not that she filled in the form incorrectly. The article states: “The form filled in and submitted by the hapless Myanmar woman was one she had obtained previously, so it did not have the necessary box to tick”.

        So she, it appears, used an out-of-date form so why did the immigration official accept it? Surely it’s the immigration official’s job to pick up on something like that?

      • ume

        I kind of agree and disagree with you.

        The form should never have been used, but at the end of the day, The immigration official probably sees thousands of people every day – They have to work quickly, and probably don’t have time to make sure every single person has the right paper work for them, individually.

        For all the immigration official knew, she might have wanted to leave the country permanently, as many do every day. The form is actually still in circulation, however for those wishing to re-enter, a different paper is used (the one the woman should have used in the first place.) Also we don’t know her level of Japanese – for all we know, the immigration official tried to explain this to her, but she didn’t understand. Thats not the immigration officials fault.

        Now if the immigration official had GIVEN her that paper, it would have been his fault entirely.

        I still say it comes down to personal responsibility – If every other person who wants to reenter Japan can do so easily, without making mistakes and losing PR or their current visa, why couldn’t this woman? It sounds like she is an idiot who made a mistake, however the fact she made a mistake is not the fault of the immigration official.

      • Guest

        “if a woman has children in Japan, a switch from a spousal visa to either a working visa or a long term resident visa IS fairly simple”

        IF the woman is working, that is. A lot of women are homemakers – what to do then? It’s not so easy.

        “Therefore, I guard my PR very carefully, and would check, and double check both independently and with immigration staff on the way out of the country, that the forms were correctly filled in. It seems this woman was completely careless, and it was entirely her own fault. I have no sympathies at all.”

        Well that’s nice. I don’t know why you wouldn’t – does it hurt to be sympathetic to someone who made an honest mistake? A reasonable human being would expect not ticking a small box on a departure card would result in forfeiture of PR status – as I said, it’s ludicrous that it does. If you don’t know these pitfalls exist, how can you know you need to double check these things? It’s bureaucracy run amok, and it’s completely unreasonable that such a small, seemingly inconsequential thing could have such severe consequences.

        Surely you can be sympathetic to that, or have you never made a mistake?

  • Toolonggone

    It’s not about reform to open the door for newcomers. It’s about control to nix anyone who falls into the cracks through document trickery and reset-the-clock mentality. Counter-measurement for potential terrorist-attack is nothing more than an official gaze, regarding that Japan has very few records of terror-plots by foreign nationals.

    • Guest

      Are there any at all in the past 50 years? Just the Air India one I suppose but that wasn’t intended for Japan.

      • Toolonggone

        Not that I know of. Many of those are homegrown.

  • Ben Shearon

    Could they not have designed the form to be the other way around (ie assume that people are coming back and have them tick if they are leaving permanently)? It would have less catastrophic effects in case of error…

    Of course, that assumes that immigration actually cares about legal residents of Japan ;)