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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Visa villains

Immigration law overdoes enforcement, penalties


With U.N. studies advising more immigration, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's worldwide campaign for more foreign visitors, Japan is not doing itself any favors with its new legislation on visa overstays.

News photo
A banner hanging in Shinagawa Station announces a "Measures Targeting Illegal Foreign Workers Month," sponsored by the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, for June.

On May 27, Japan's Diet amended the "Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act," enacting stricter punishments. The maximum fine for visa expiry increases tenfold from 300,000 yen to 3 million yen. Banishment from Japan doubles from five to 10 years. Those who come clean at Immigration before being caught will merely be deported faster.

This is on top of already-tough detention conditions: Several days confined to a room with other criminals (sometimes at a daily charge of 60,000 yen). Access denied to family, a consulate, or even a lawyer.

What's going on? The National Police Agency claims that hordes of illegal aliens (estimated somehow at 250,000) are ratcheting up Japan's crime rate. Last year, one plank of Koizumi's election platform was halving the number of overstayers within five years.

Government has geared up for the task. As discussed in previous Zeit Gist columns, the National Police Agency's "Policymaking Committee Against Internationalization" (Kokusaika Taisaku Iinkai), inaugurated in 2000, is making its mark. There are now budgets for genetic racial profiling research, public notices nationwide about "bad foreigner crime," and Immigration "Internet snitch sites," roundly condemned by domestic human rights groups as racist.

To be sure, resident foreigners have a legal obligation to keep their visas valid. And yes, some miscreants do come to Japan and commit crimes, and deserve incarceration or permanent expulsion.

But do the new punishments fit the crime? After all, equating overstayers with hardened criminal activity (like burglary or murder) overstates the seriousness of the matter.

"Overstaying" in itself is a bureaucratic procedure, not necessarily a willful act to deprive others of life, liberty, or property.

Moreover, are all bureaucratic rulebreakers automatically criminals? Japan's nenkin pension plan scandals have shown that politicians, including our prime minister, can forget to follow administrative procedures. Yet do they face expulsion or incarceration?

The point is for overstayers, more administrative effort is necessary to find the truly bad apples, and to make sure overzealous officials don't overstep their mandate.

Consider two cases:

A university professor, who has worked in Japan for more than a decade, discovered his visa was three weeks overdue. He went to Immigration to own up -- which, until recently, would have resulted in a lot of bowing and a letter of apology. But this time, after being questioned, photographed, and fingerprinted, he was told that he was now a criminal, warranting an indefinite period of background investigation.

Problem is, officials refused to issue any evidence that his visa was being processed. Outside Immigration, he was still as illegal as when he walked in. Their advice? "Stay out of trouble. And remember your case number."

Contrast that with how Japan processes other forms of identification, such as driver licenses. The government mails all bearers a reminder before expiry. During processing, you get a temporary license to keep you out of jug in case you get stopped by the cops.

But if the professor gets snagged for a random Gaijin Card Check, he might just disappear. With detentions short on legal advice or contact with the outside world, what's to stop another summary deportation?

Case two: Another long-term resident recently went to have his Gaijin Card renewed early at the local ward office. Previously, the procedure took less than an hour and was accomplished in one trip.

This time, however, officials were adamant about seeing his credentials, proof of workplace, financial standing, etc. "We will check every phone number you give us," officials stated. Then he was told to come back again on the day his Gaijin Card expired.

Problem is, his visa was still good -- for a couple more years. Seems like having any kind of visa, valid or void, is in itself becoming grounds for suspicion in Japan.

So now things are getting extreme. As this column reported on May 18, even a one day overstay means incarceration, fines, and expulsion. A fortnight overdue on five-year visas, two people mentioned were on their way home anyway when they got chucked into Narita's detention center.

Surely there are bigger fish to catch. How about targeting some of the culprits of visa overstays?

For example, those in the skin trade. Since the early 1980's, organized crime has brought in about half a million women "entertainers" who, passports confiscated and visas lapsed, often become sexual slaves.

According to the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report (June 14, 2004): "Over the past year, the Japanese government offered victims of sexual slavery little in the way of legal advice, psychological or financial support. Generally, victims were deported as illegal aliens."

Or how about Japan's companies who exploit government "Trainee" and "Nikkeijin Visitor" programs, bringing in hundreds of thousands of cheap foreign workers? Industries sometimes even prefer overstayers, since the latter cannot go to the authorities if they get cheated out of already meager wages.

Alas, standards are different if the perpetrators are Japanese. Takeyuki Tsuda, Associate Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, reports: "[W]hen the revised immigration law was passed [in 1990] by the Japanese Diet, there was an implicit agreement with the Ministry of Justice that it would not aggressively enforce new employer sanctions law in apparent deference to the large numbers of Japanese companies which need illegal immigrant workers to survive."

So let's get this straight. People thrive by bringing foreigners here, give them lousy conditions and few civil protections, and then blame them for rising crime numbers? A full third of which are not "hard crimes," but rather visa violations -- often instigated by Japanese?

Any hope for some improvements? Not if the voices of foreigners continue to be ignored.

Even the Foreigners' Advisory Council of Tokyo, established in 1997 by former Tokyo Gov. Aoshima for more intercultural policy input, has not met under current Gov. Ishihara since 2001.

I believe we are seeing Japan retreat back into its clamshell. The approach of the Japanese government towards foreigners, generally shameful, is getting worse.

The current fear of foreign crime is creating knee-jerk policy controlled by conservatives, with less caution given to possible mission creep or legislative overreach.

Smoother processing of illegals is understandable. But treating all overstayers like hardened criminals is going too far.

So is treating legal foreign residents like potential criminals.

The end result will be Japan's loss of skilled and visa-sanctioned foreign labor, who will be less willing to come here and brave the hassles of just staying legal.

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