The 60-year-old alien registration system became obsolete on July 9, replaced by new rules and regulations under a revised law intended to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in Japan.
Under the new system, resident cards will be issued to long-term foreigners in Japan, and rules will be eased somewhat for their stays in the country. But for those living in Japan illegally, the new system will essentially eliminate their “existence,” even if they had been recognized under the old system.
Critics say these immigrants--and their children born in Japan--could end up being denied basic social services, such as education and medical care. Confusion over the new system is also apparent among local governments that provide these services.
"Foreigners who cannot return home have no choice but to live in Japan,” said Eriko Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Kokushikan University. “Under the new system, they will be displaced from the areas of daily living and be completely shut off from Japanese society. I am opposed to any system that makes ‘invisible’ people who are just trying to live."
Under the old system, the Immigration Bureau handled information about foreigners’ entries and departures and how long they were legally allowed to remain in Japan.
Municipal governments, on the other hand, handled such information as addresses and household members of foreigners who were issued alien registration cards.
Those cards were issued regardless of the status of the foreigners, even to those residing illegally in Japan. Once foreigners had their alien registration cards, they could place their children in public schools and have them vaccinated.
The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law was revised in July 2009, but the government waited for three years to enforce it to allow foreigners in Japan to become familiar with the changes.
The new resident cards will be issued to all foreigners who remain in Japan for more than three months. The cards have IC chips to prevent forgeries and contain a photo as well as information such as name, citizenship, address and residence status.
The card also states the conditions under which the holder can work.
Foreigners who enter Japan with the intention of staying for more than three months will be issued the resident card when arriving at Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai airports. Those who arrive at other ports of entry must go to a municipal government office to receive the card.
Those with old alien registration cards need to switch to the resident cards before the end of their periods of stay or within three years.
Foreigners already registered in Japan will be issued a new resident card at their municipal government offices when they report changes in address.
After obtaining the resident card, the foreigners will be registered in the basic resident register, like Japanese citizens.
Under the new system, the maximum limit of resident status will be extended to five years from the old limit of three years. Re-entry permits will no longer be needed if the resident card holder returns to Japan within one year of departure.
While the new system may be more convenient for foreigners with legal status in Japan, the revised law is tougher on complacency, deception and those who overstay their visas.
Penalties have been introduced against those who fail to report changes in their places of work or study, as well as those who do not report a divorce. The central government will also ask companies and schools for information about their foreign employees and students.
But perhaps the biggest concern among human rights groups are the fates of the estimated 67,000 illegal immigrants in Japan, including those seeking refugee status.
Under the old alien registration card system, even illegal foreigners were provided social services, such as allowing their children to attend public schools and be vaccinated. Expecting mothers were also given a record of the development of the fetus.
Central government officials said there would be no change in the administrative services available to foreigners. But if foreigners are not entered into the national system, they would not be registered as local residents and could be deprived of some social services.
Municipal governments have shown vast differences of opinion on whether they will provide social services to illegal immigrants under the new system.
The Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, which provides assistance to foreigners, conducted a survey between January and March of officials of 71 local governments, including prefectural capitals.
In response to a question about whether children of illegal foreigners would be allowed to attend public schools, 56 local governments said it would be possible "if confirmation could be made about the actual residence situation." However, four local governments said providing education would not be possible, while 11 were still considering what measures to take.
Regarding vaccination of children, 32 local governments said it would be impossible, while 13 said they could not provide records of a baby's development to mothers.
A couple from Ghana who has lived illegally in Japan for 20 years voiced fears about the future of their 8-year-old daughter, who can only speak Japanese.
The 57-year-old father and 52-year-old mother live in Saitama Prefecture in a room at a factory where the man used to work. He has been unable to work since being detained by immigration authorities in 2009.
Their daughter is now in the third grade of a local elementary school, and the family does not want to return to Ghana.
The daughter had no problem entering the school because the family had completed alien registration procedures. School officials told the parents that their daughter can continue to attend the school.
But the municipal government sent the couple a letter telling them that they will not be registered in the basic resident register under the new system. The mother now fears her daughter's future could suddenly change under the new rules.
Some local governments were thinking of ways to continue providing administrative services to all foreigners.
At the Kawasaki Ward office of the Kawasaki municipal government, officials plan to allow children of foreigners to attend public elementary and junior high schools as well as receive early childhood medical checkups--as long as they can prove they actually live in the ward.
However, because illegal immigrants will not be included in the basic resident register, ward officials will not be able to send out notices on entering school or receiving medical care for children when they reach specified ages.
One option being considered was to create a separate list of foreigners who come forward and ask to receive certain services, one official said.
(This article was compiled from reports by Tsuyoshi Tamura, Kanako Ida and Atsushi Takahashi.)
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