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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Residency rule changes

Lower House passes bill revising foreign residency rules


Staff writer

The Lower House passed bills Friday making it easier for the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau to keep tabs on foreigners who have overstayed their visas as well as others residing legally in the country.

The Upper House is also expected to pass the bills, which have the support of both the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party.

The Immigration Bureau and lawmakers worked out the bills to reduce the number of undocumented foreign residents, which the bureau estimates to be about 110,000.

"The bills suggest the government has set its sights on cracking down on undocumented foreigners," said Amnesty International Japan official Sonoko Kawakami. "But it remains unclear how people in a difficult situation, like those applying for refugee status, will be dealt with."

The bills will abolish the Alien Registration Act and revise the immigration control and resident registration laws. Responsibility for overseeing foreign residents will be shifted from municipalities to the Immigration Bureau, which will keep track of personal information, including name, address, visa type and expiration date.

Currently, municipalities issue alien registration cards and provide other public services even to those who have overstayed their visas.

"Municipal officials are simply doing their jobs registering foreigners in compliance with the Alien Registration Act," immigration lawyer Shogo Watanabe said, adding that local governments issue alien registration cards to overstayers with the words "no residential status" typed on them.

With the passage of the bills, undocumented foreigners who are not granted special permission to stay will be detained for deportation.

To prevent the deportation of overstayers with a legitimate reason to reside in the country, the bills also require the Justice Ministry to clarify and announce the standards for granting special permission to stay.

Since 2003, about 10,000 foreigners a year on average have been granted special permission to stay, according to the Immigration Bureau. Granting permission is entirely at the discretion of the Justice Ministry.

A new form of identification, called a "zairyu" (residence) card, will replace alien registration cards, with the information on them kept by the Justice Ministry.

Foreign residents will be listed on the Juki Net resident registry network, a computer network linking municipalities that contains demographic information of Japanese residents.

Visas, typically good for three years, will be extended to five. Also, foreign residents will no longer be required to obtain re-entry permits if they return to Japan within a year.

On the other hand, the punishments for failing to report one's address and other personal information will become harsher. In order to curb fake marriages, the bills give the justice minister the authority to revoke the spousal visas of those who fail to conduct "activities spouses normally do" for six months. Special consideration would be given to spouses who live separately because of mitigating circumstances, including abuse.

According to the bills, the government must review the new immigration law and make necessary changes within three years of enforcement. If enacted, the new law will be enforced within three years of its announcement to the public.



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