Several weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama said that he wants to allow younger undocumented immigrants who came to America as children to stay, and last week the Supreme Court struck down some provisions of Arizona’s controversial law requiring police to check individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally. Both stories received major coverage because immigration is a contentious issue, having always been central to America’s self-image as the world’s most dedicated stronghold of freedom.

Immigration has no comparable status in Japan, which is why non-Japanese seem to be the only residents who talk about it. The media mentions it in passing when they report stories such as the recent release of a Nepalese restaurant worker after 15 years in jail on a trumped-up murder conviction, or those Indonesians who decided to return to their home country despite the fact that they passed the stringent tests for foreign caregivers. In these and other cases, the individuals originally came to Japan for economic reasons, which is the impetus for most migration in the world, but it’s implied that they didn’t feel compelled to stay permanently. They were only here to make money, not lives for themselves.

This subtext informs the local coverage of imin (immigrants), who, in any case, are never referred to as such. All non-Japanese are “foreigners,” so distinctions with regard to length of stay and intentions mean little to most Japanese, and that makes the authorities’ job easier since, as in almost every other developed country in the world, immigration is regulated in accordance with economic circumstances. As long as people don’t pay attention to immigration policy, no one will be bothered by its shifting priorities.

But sometimes it’s impossible to ignore. Ten years ago Kimihiro Tsumura, a professor at Hamamatsu Gakuin University, couldn’t help but notice all the young Brazilians in his city and that many weren’t in school. Most were working full-time in local factories that served the region’s automotive industry. They had come with their parents in the early 1990s or had been born in Japan after their parents arrived. In 1990, the Ministry of Justice revised the immigration law to allow foreign nationals who could prove they were third-generation Japanese or less to work in Japan, and they could bring their families. Many landless Japanese farmers emigrated to places such as Brazil and Peru in the early 1900s, and it was their descendents who, frustrated with the lack of opportunity in their native countries, jumped at the chance to work in Japan. At the time, Japanese industry was suffering a labor shortage. By the turn of the millenium there were more than 300,000 Brazilian immigrants in Japan.

Tsumura found that young Brazilians didn’t interact much with Japanese people, though most could speak the language. And while almost all went through the public school system, only 30 percent continued on to high school. In fact, a good portion didn’t even finish junior high school, which means they didn’t fulfill their compulsory education requirement. The fact that so many dropped out indicated to him, as he told Tokyo Shimbun, “that the government didn’t care about them.” He became even more interested and studied their lives. Starting in 2007, filmmaker Mayu Nakamura recorded these interactions. She has edited her footage into a documentary called “Lonely Swallows,” which was released last month.

The film’s subjects share a feeling of frustration. Edouardo Satake came to Japan when he was 2 with his mother, a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian. In 2007 he was working 12 hours a day in a factory as a contract laborer. Though he had lived in Hamamatsu almost all his life, he said “it doesn’t feel like home.” He tried to improve his situation by, of all things, tutoring younger Brazilian-Japanese in English. He never got past junior high school himself.

Yuri Suzuki is more adept at polite Japanese, which clashes with his self-styled gangbanger appearance. Though in 2007 he knew no country firsthand except Japan, his life completely revolved around his family and Brazilian friends. He’d been in trouble with the police and spent time in a juvenile corrections facility. He claims he formed a gang to gain self-esteem. “I dropped out of school because no one there respected me,” he says.

The movie’s narrative is bisected by the recession of 2008, after which the subjects and/or their families lost their jobs. Except for Edouard, all leave Japan for Brazil, voluntarily if reluctantly, understanding they are at the bottom of society in Japan. “We know we are here only as migrant workers,” Yuri says. “So we have to go where the jobs are. It can’t be helped.” Edouardo finds work as a recruiter for a Japanese language school but eventually loses that job, too. He is then arrested for possession of marijuana.

The movie says little about immigration policy, and it mentions nothing at all about 2009’s so-called “Nikkei” law, which provided cash to unemployed Brazilians and Peruvians if they left Japan and promised to never come back to work. However, Tsumura and Nakamura went to Brazil in 2010 to find out how their former subjects were faring. Though still in a state of limbo owing to Brazil’s own economic uncertainty, they demonstrate the adaptability characteristic of youth. Ayumi Paula Sato, who was born in Japan, works full-time to pay for night school. She struggled psychologically with being uprooted at the age of 15, but she is determined to succeed. “I’ll never understand why I had to leave,” she says, sitting by her window in her parents’ home, clandestinely smoking a cigarette. “But I know I have to change, I can’t wait around for someone to push me.” She’s faced up to the realization that she can’t stay where she’s not wanted.

In Tokyo, “Lonely Swallows” screens through July 12 at Uplink (03-6825-5502). It is playing in Hamamatsu at Cinema Era through July 13 (053-489-5539), and will soon open in Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.