With bills to revise the immigration law expected to clear the current Diet session, the Immigration Bureau aims to get a clearer picture of the facts surrounding foreigners who overstay their visas, a bureau official said.

“As the current laws stand, it is difficult to grasp the precise situations of foreign residents,” Immigration Bureau General Affairs Division official Kazuyuki Motohari told The Japan Times.

The bills will let the justice minister, who oversees the bureau, consolidate personal information on foreign residents, including name, address and duration of visa. Such information is currently managed by municipalities that have no authority to crack down on overstayers.

“We have studied the situation of immigration control and consulted local governments, professors and other experts, including foreign residents. We then concluded the law revision was necessary,” Motohari said.

The government bills, drafted by a bureau team to which Motohari is a member, were sent to the Lower House on March 6. They are currently before the Upper House.

Although Lower House lawmakers changed the government’s version of the bills and passed a revised one that exerts less control over foreign residents than the original, the bureau will accept what the lawmakers decided, Motohari said.

“There were no corrections that dramatically changed the main idea of our version of the bills,” he said.

While the bureau hopes the bills help provide a clearer picture of overstayers, this will not be achieved unless foreigners properly report their status.

Under the new system, it will be difficult for illegal residents to remain illegal because foreigners’ personal information will be centralized with the Justice Ministry and punishments for failing to report changes in information will be harsher.

If illegal foreigners turn themselves in, they may, under certain circumstances, be granted special permission to stay by the justice minister, or placed in custody in preparation for deportation.

The bills stipulate the justice minister must clarify the standard to grant special permission to stay to motivate overstaying foreigners to turn themselves in.

The minister has about three years to produce a guideline on the standard because the bill will have to be enforced within three years after being publicized upon enactment.

“We will work on explaining in as much detail as possible the standard of special permits, even though it may be difficult,” Motohari said. “I know 110,000 overstayers are worried. But for (the Immigration Bureau), those people being invisible to us is the least desirable situation.”

The justice minister granted special permission to stay to some 7,000 residents in 2007, down from a peak of 13,000 in 2004.

The bureau currently has no concrete criteria for granting the permit. Instead, it shows on its Web site examples of cases it granted and those it didn’t, but the information provided may not give illegal foreigners a clear clue as to what their fate may be, Motohari said.

In one case on the Web site, a 27-year-old Southeast Asian woman was granted permission in 2007. She entered Japan with a six-month student visa in October 2004, dropped out of school and continued to stay in Japan.

She was arrested for overstaying in 2007, sent to the bureau without criminal charges and married a South American man, a legal resident, she had begun living with before the arrest. The bureau concluded their marriage was credible and she otherwise had a clean criminal record, it said on the Web site.

Human rights groups complain that because the justice minister can access foreign residents’ personal information with residence (“zairyu”) card numbers, which are to be given to every documented foreigner, it is an infringement of privacy. Motohari defended the bureau by saying, “It is not unusual for us to hold information that helps us confirm the identify of foreign residents.”

The bills stipulate that the justice minister must not use residents’ personal information for purposes other than “managing” foreign residents and must handle the information in a way that does not violate privacy.

He also said it is essential to let foreigners know the rule changes, including advantages such as extending visa duration from three to five years and ending the requirement to obtain a re-entry permit if one returns to Japan within a year.

“It will undoubtedly be more convenient for legal residents,” he said.

The bureau’s statistics show 1.41 million foreign residents re-entered Japan within a year in 2007, accounting for 98.7 percent of the 1.43 million who left Japan after obtaining a re-entry permit.

The Immigration Bureau is considering enabling foreign residents to report changes in workplace and apply for renewal of residence cards via mail or the Internet instead of requiring them to go to local immigration offices, he said.

Currently, renewing alien registration cards, which are to be replaced by zairyu cards, and reporting changes in personal information can be done at municipal offices, more of which exist than immigration offices.

For address changes, residents can go to municipal offices even under the new system. For changes in name, gender and nationality, they will have to go to immigration offices instead of municipal offices, but such changes rarely occur.

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