On a morning in mid-September, Utinan Won hugged his mother and then watched as she passed through departures at Tokyo’s Narita airport on her way to Bangkok.

Two and a half months earlier, judges in a Tokyo court upheld deportation orders against 16-year-old Utinan and his mother, Lonsan Phaphakdee, both Thai nationals living in Japan on provisional release status.

But, in their ruling, the judges laid out a path for Utinan to stay in Japan — if his mother left the country.

For Lonsan, who had been living in Japan for more than two decades, the meaning of the ruling was clear: Return to Thailand, and she could open a way for her son to remain in Japan.

“I couldn’t imagine going back, but we lost in court,” she said at the airport, speaking in Thai as her son interpreted in his native Japanese. “I never believed it would come to this.”

Utinan’s case is another example of the agonizing pathway to residency offered by the Japanese immigration authorities and courts to some families living without visas in the country. Many of the parents, from countries including Peru, Bolivia and Iran, entered Japan on tourist visas in the 1990s and stayed on illegally, hoping to build a better life for them and their children.

Lonsan’s departure left Utinan, who was born and raised in Japan and has never been to Thailand, without any family. Utinan’s parents — his father is also Thai — separated when he was young.

“My mom is going back home so I can stay in Japan,” he said. “I feel so alone.”

In their June 30 ruling, judges in the Tokyo District Court noted that Utinan was attending high school and had “increasingly adapted to Japanese society.”

“After the mother is deported, if there is a guardian able to care for the child on behalf of the mother; if there is a network of support; if the child himself wishes to continue life in Japan even if he is apart from his mother; then there is room to reconsider whether to grant the child a special residence permit,” the ruling said.

Utinan now lives with a Japanese man who has been supporting the family. He is waiting to hear whether the Japanese authorities will live up to their side of the deal. The Tokyo High Court is expected to rule on his case next month.

In total, Reuters spoke with five other families who said they had received a direct, verbal offer of residency from immigration officers for the children if the parents left the country. But they turned down the offer, they said, preferring to continue their battle to stay in Japan rather than break up their families.

A Filipino family that has lived for nearly 20 years in Japan, nine of them on provisional release, said immigration officers had raised the idea with them last year. Their son, a junior high school student, was born and raised in Japan.

Japanese immigration officials won’t comment on individual cases, but they said such offers were only ever put on the table if the families first raised the idea.

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