National / Crime & Legal

Japan's so-called visa overstayers tell of life in legal limbo

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Whenever 12-year-old Jezreel Ann Balbuena comes down with a cold, her parents rush to a nearby pharmacy to get hold of nonprescription drugs and take turns tending to her. Going to see a doctor is not an option because the family has no health insurance.

Daily necessities, such as rice, clothes and stationery items, are hard to come by, too, with Balbuena unable to wear anything other than her mother’s hand-me-down clothes.

“I’m ashamed every time I find myself to be the last person in my classroom to pay school lunch fees and other school-related expenses,” the Filipino said. “I’m scared of the way people look at me.”

Like many other children born into undocumented immigrant families, Balbuena has no valid visa status — a situation that has thrown her into a lifetime of poverty and legal limbo.

Ever since they were caught overstaying their visas in 2009, her family has lived on a highly precarious status called karihomen, or provisional release, that spares them detention but requires monthly renewal. Those on provisional release are unable to work, claim national health insurance or travel beyond their residing prefecture without permission from immigration authorities.

As such, many children live in fear that their family may one day be denied renewal and repatriated to a country that they know nothing about.

Some of these children, in asking for special permission to live in Japan, have been told by the government that while they qualify on humanitarian grounds, their parents do not — an ultimatum that threatens to tear their families apart.

Eight children in such a predicament petitioned the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, in Shinagawa Ward, on Friday for clemency from the government to allow their families to stay and, as one organizer put it, “pursue their dreams in Japan.”

“To these children, their parents’ countries are so foreign. These are not the places for them to ‘return’ to,” said organizer Jotaro Kato, who heads nonprofit organization Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS).

“Children can’t pick the parents they are born to. Given their circumstances, I believe they deserve a bit of mercy from the government. And being together with their parents is crucial to their sound development.”

Friday’s action comes amid Japan’s intensifying crackdown on illegal immigrants, including visa overstayers, in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic games. Although Japan used to tolerate visa overstayers at the height of its bubble economy, it quickly began to clamp down on them once demand for their labor fizzled out, branding them criminals responsible for wrongdoing such as home invasions and robberies.

The number of visa overstayers was 60,007 as of Jan. 1 this year, about one-fifth of the record 298,646 logged in 1993, according to the Justice Ministry.

The Justice Ministry, in a five-year immigration policy review unveiled last month, has decided to ratchet up efforts to oust overstayers by strengthening cooperation with police in a move it claims will improve public order and security.

“We’re sorry for breaking Japan’s rule,” Balbuena’s mother, Myla, said.

She and her husband, Frederick, initially came to Japan in 2001 on a three-month tourist visa and later overstayed it in pursuit of employment. “But we’re begging the government to give us a chance to stay in Japan. The future of our daughter is our concern.”

“Japan is my only home. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine myself living anywhere other than here,” Balbuena, who doesn’t understand Tagalog at all, said.

Balbuena’s story is not an isolated case among children of overstayers.

Iranian Narin Zoljalalian, for one, knows all about hardships as a result of not having a visa. Having moved to Japan at age 2 in 2002, she now lives alone with her mother on provisional release after facing a deportation order for overstaying their visas in 2007.

With no proper form of identification, such as a residence certificate, the 16-year-old said she couldn’t open her own bank account, nor could she work in a part-time job as her friends do.

The Justice Ministry, in response to her handwritten letter pleading for an exceptional measure to greenlight her and her mother’s stay in Japan, answered in December last year that she was eligible for such special permission. But her mother, the ministry said, needed to be repatriated no matter what.

“I don’t understand why the ministry would drive us apart,” Zoljalalian said.

“The most frightening part is I don’t know when and whether this unstable life of ours will come to an end. I often ask myself, could this be the last summer I would spend with my friends in Japan? Or would I be able to join our school trip next year? My future is so uncertain I can’t even think about whether to go to college.”

With the cooperation of her classmates, Zoljalalian is now collecting signatures as part of her campaign to obtain residency for her mother and her.

Kato from APFS said being undocumented affected the well-being of children even more as they grew older.

Such is the case for an 18-year-old Filipino boy in Saitama Prefecture.

The boy’s parents came to Japan in 1994 on a tourist visa in search of employment and it wasn’t until he was 11 years old that he learned about his family’s situation when, on one unforgettable morning, a group of immigration officials showed up unannounced and took his father to a detention center. His family is currently granted provisional release.

At no time in his life, the boy said, had he been more excruciatingly aware of the consequences of not having a visa than today. A sense of crisis has descended upon him lately with the realization that it won’t be long before he stops being a “child” entitled to full protection and care by his parents. He will be a full-fledged adult in two years and will need to make ends meet on his own and support the family.

Currently a student at a Saitama vocational school for nursing care, he is hoping to pass a national nursing exam to work in the industry. But without a visa, he will remain unemployable even if he has passed.

“When I was in high school, I used to not care much about my situation, perhaps except for the fact that I couldn’t have a part-time job. But now that I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m expected to do lots of things on my own, the lack of a visa has become a serious worry for me,” said the boy, who asked to have his name withheld for privacy reasons.

Although children of visa overstayers certainly have it tough, that is not to say that they are entirely in despair.

Despite financial difficulties, Filipino Balbuena, for one, said she loved her school, her face brightening with joy as she described her volleyball club activities, her lunchtime chitchat with friends and her future dream of becoming a nurse.

“I want to do something to help others,” she said. “I love making people smile.”