Tag Archives: Japan

The Time I Almost Went to Jail Over Immigration Bureaucracy

This is the third in a series of posts by Justin Merrill describing his experiences with immigration law and immigrants. In the first post of the series, Merrill described how, after a summer working in an orchard in the US alongside immigrants from Mexico, Merrill’s own views shifted in the direction of open borders. In the second post, Merrill described how his Japanese wife was denied entry to the United States when she tried entering on a tourist visa, and he therefore ended up moving to Japan to start married life with her. This post decribes his encounters with the Japanese immigration bureaucracy. You can read more posts in our personal anecdote series here.

After Eri was denied entry into the US, we had to decide where we could do to live together. We devised a plan to stay with our friends Phil and Yukako in Iwakuni, Japan while I looked for a job on the Marine Corps Air Station and we looked for our own housing. I arrived on a tourist visa and I needed to get a job before it expired. Even when I was in the Marine Corps, I had never been to this base and this part of Japan was new to me, so I didn’t have any connections. The prospects were slim because the best jobs were only open to people who already had SOFA status (Status of Forces Agreement). SOFA status is a special visa status for US military members and civilians working on the base and their families. Only the most desperate job vacancies would open up to people from off base who didn’t have SOFA status. This is because it costs thousands of dollars to run background checks and apply for SOFA status, so it is cheaper to hire from the existing pool. It was frustrating that there were jobs in finance and supply administration that I was qualified for but couldn’t apply to without SOFA status.

With my visa expiring soon, I applied to the on base day care. It was one of the most difficult jobs on base but our friend Yukako worked there. Since it was the least desired position it had perpetual vacancies open to anyone who could pass the background check. Well, that’s not even true. They hired a Japanese man who spent four years in America “going to college”, but they found out after employing him for at least a year that he had instead served a four year sentence for raping a ten year old girl in the US. They didn’t do a background check on his time in the US until after I complained about his suspicious behavior, but I digress.

With just a couple weeks left on my passport I interviewed for the position as a last resort. A week later on a Friday I was called by human resources and told that I was hired and that my first day was next Tuesday. She explained to me that all new hires start on Tuesdays because they have to attend an all-day orientation class that is offered weekly. I gladly accepted the position and told her that my visa expires Sunday. She said that it wouldn’t be a problem because I was officially hired and I would be considered sponsored. She told me that on Monday I needed to come by the HR office and pick up my new ID and some paperwork that I’d need to take to the Japanese government office in Hiroshima to process my SOFA status.

On Monday, after I stopped by the base, Eri and I took the train to Hiroshima. We knew we arrived at the government offices because there was a long line of thirty or so Filipino bar girls lined up against the wall getting processed for deportation. When it was my turn I went to the window. The attendant told me to wait a moment while she spoke with her supervisor. She returned with her supervisor and two police officers. They told me to follow them into an interrogation room and told Eri to wait outside. They said that I had over-stayed my visa and that I was facing up to six months in jail, thousands of dollars in fines, and being barred from reentry. I explained that this was all a misunderstanding that would be cleared up if they just spoke with human resources on the base. They kept pressuring me, trying to make me feel guilty for something that I had no remorse for. I wasn’t too scared because I had faith that it would get cleared up, but this guy clearly wanted to make an example out of me. If he had gotten his way, it would have been devastating. Eri can’t live in the US and I couldn’t live in Japan. Plus, if I had a criminal record from violating immigration laws I might have a hard time getting residency in a third country.

After almost three hours of interrogation and mostly making me sitting alone, not even allowing me to talk to my wife, they finally let me go without an apology. They said they had cleared things up with my command. I gladly left with my opinion of immigration enforcers at a new low. The Status of Forces Agreement details how US citizens will be treated if there is a violation of the local laws. Because I didn’t officially have SOFA status yet since I was in limbo, maybe I wouldn’t have been protected if Japan wanted to play hard ball?

I was able to stay in Japan and work on base as planned. It only took three months for an ideal job to open up and I got it. Eri and I got our own place off base and started our new lives together. Soon after we moved to Japan, Eri got pregnant and we started her immigration paperwork. We were happy despite the fact that I just got out of the Marine Corps and was hoping to never look back, but now was working as a civilian.

I did a little research for this post and it looks like around the time I almost went to jail in 2006 they were changing the immigration laws in Japan. Visa overstays in Japan are now only punished with deportation and banned for 1-5 years, instead of being jailed and fined, if they turn themselves in. This change in the enforcement has halved the number of illegal immigrants living in Japan since 2006.

To be continued …

Related reading

This section includes links provided by the author but with some editorial expansion.

Japanese immigration enforcement has a history of corruption. See for instance:

  • Japan’s immigration control: Gulag for gaijin, The Economist, January 18, 2012, quotes from Bryan Johnson’s lengthy account of his experience being denied entry into Japan and forced to depart at gunpoint. The original account is here. The beginning of the account is quoted below:

    On my way home to Tokyo after a three-day trip to Seoul, I was planning to spend Christmas with my partner, our two dogs, and her Japanese family. I had flight and hotel reservations for ski trips to Hokkaido and Tohoku, and I was planning—with the help of regional government tourism agencies—to do feature stories to promote foreign tourism to Japan.

    While taking my fingerprints, an immigration officer saw my name on a computer watch list. Without even looking through my passport, where he might find proper stamps for my travels, he marked a paper and gave it to another immigration officer. ”Come with me,” he said, and I did.

    He led me to an open room. Tired after three hours’ sleep overnight in Seoul, I nodded off. Officers woke me up and insisted we do an “interview” in a private room, “for your privacy.” Sensing something amiss, I asked for a witness and a translator, to make sure they couldn’t confuse me with legal jargon in Japanese. An employee of Asiana Airlines came to witness the “interview.”

    The immigration officers provided a translator—hired by immigration. She turned out to be the interpreter from hell. ”Hi, what’s your name?” I asked, introducing myself to her. “I don’t have to tell you anything,” she snapped at me. She was backed up by four uniformed immigration officials.

    Q: “What are the names of the hotels where you stayed in April in the disaster zone? What are the names of people you met in Fukushima?”

    A: “Well, I stayed at many places, I met hundreds of people.”

    Q: “What are their names?”

    A: “Well, there are so many.”

    Q: “You are refusing to answer the question! You must say exactly, in detail.”

    (Before I could answer, next question.)

    Q: “What were you doing in May 2010? Who did you meet then?”

    A: “That was a long time ago. Let me think for a moment.”

    The interpreter butted in: “See, you are refusing to answer. You are lying.”

    The “interpreter”, biased toward her colleagues in the immigration department, intentionally mistranslated my answers, and repeatedly accused me of making unclear statements. I understood enough of their conversation in Japanese to realise she totally got my story wrong.

    Without hesitation, he wrote on a document: “No proof. Entry denied.”

    “But I do have proof,” I said.

    But he refused to acknowledge it. “You must sign here. You cannot refuse.”

  • Japan: Welcome to Japan? by Amnesty International, May 16, 2002, documents Japan’s treatment of those seeking entry, including those with bona fide asylum applications.
  • People seeking to migrate to the US are expected to meet higher bars for “morality” than just avoiding crime. See for instance the concepts of moral turpitude and good moral character. Similar ideas may apply de facto to immigration to other countries. See also the blog post Exposing the fundamentally immoral bedrock of most immigration laws by John Lee, Open Borders: The Case, March 20, 2013.
  • English-language version of the Japanese government’s official description of its immigration laws: here and here.

The photograph of San Quentin prison in California featured at the top of this post was taken by Waldemar Zboralski, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Our Wedding and Immigration Disaster

This post is part of a series by Justin Merrill describing his personal experience with immigration and his embrace of open borders. It is part of our ongoing series of posts that are based on personal anecdotes. The first post in the series is here.

I was a senior in high school when terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001. I was at a critical point in deciding what to do after graduation and decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. I went to boot camp one year after 9/11. After I finished my combat and job training, I was sent to my first duty station in Okinawa, Japan. My time in Okinawa was bittersweet because our command was really strict and paternalistic and my office made me work incredibly long hours. But unlike many of my peers, I made an effort to soak up the culture and experience more of the off-base life than just bars. As mentioned in my previous post, I was raised around Japanese exchange students and I also did karate as a kid, so my starting level of Japanese was basic, but higher than most (counting and common phrases).

Eri, my future wife, and I met and started chatting through Yahoo Messenger in 2003. She is from Toyota, Japan (yes, where they make the cars), which is on mainland Japan. Okinawa is a tropical island far to the south, sometimes called the “Hawaii of Japan”. Our relationship was more of a friendly pen pal nature, mostly because there wasn’t any expectation of meeting in the future. I also was opposed to having a serious relationship while in the Marine Corps because I saw how high the strain of military life is on relationships. My tour in Okinawa was only one year and a vacation to visit her wasn’t practical. Eri spoke English well because she was an exchange student in North Carolina for two years and studied English in Australia after graduating from high school. We kept in touch over the years and got to know each other pretty well. After my year in Okinawa, my final duty station was in the Washington, DC area for the remainder of my term. Even though I was raised on the west coast, I liked the DC area so much that I decided to stay there after I got out. I shared an apartment with my newlywed friends and was putting down roots on my terminal leave when Eri told me that she would be visiting her host family that she lived with while in North Carolina. I pointed out that the timing was perfect and that we should meet up. We agreed to spend three weeks together and instantly hit it off. A week after we met we decided to get married. We spent a week in NYC, a first for both of us, during Christmas and New Year’s and bought our wedding rings in the Diamond District. Our families were both very happy for us, but I didn’t want to do a shotgun wedding. I wanted to meet her family first and have the ceremony in Japan, especially since we are both Buddhist and Eri’s mom’s temple offered to perform the ceremony. So we arranged to have receptions in Toyota and Utah for both our families. The wedding was scheduled for February. Eri’s tourist visa would expire soon so she returned to Japan to start planning the wedding and I began looking for a new apartment in DC for us to move in to after the receptions.

Before our wedding, in order for our marriage to be recognized in the States, we had to get a marriage certificate from the US embassy consulate in Osaka, which is pretty far from Toyota. The only day that happened to fit in our busy schedule was Valentine’s Day. We chose against having the wedding on Valentine’s Day because it seemed too cheesy, but our marriage certificate states we were legally wedded on that day. Now we celebrate our anniversary on Feb. 14th and tell people we were “accidentally” married on that day. Only my mom could attend on my side of the family, but our wedding and reception in Japan were great. Her family helped pay for an extravagant celebration and all her friends and family came and supported us. It’s not common to marry a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan. After the wedding we had a honeymoon of sorts and stayed with Eri’s friends, Phil and Yukako, who attended our wedding and who were a couple like us (former Marine husband and Japanese wife). Eri was an exchange student in North Carolina with Yukako and they became best friends; it’s funny they would both marry Marines. Phil was working as a civilian on the Marine Corps Air Base in Iwakuni, which is far to the south. After spending time with them, Eri and I were to fly to Utah to prepare for our reception for my family.

For some reason, I think because I was using a Delta buddy pass, we had to fly on different flights and I arrived a couple days before her. Fortunately I bought ourselves new cell phones and added her to my plan before I left, since we were planning on living in the States. As I was on my way to pick her up in Salt Lake City she texted me that she wouldn’t be arriving and was being taken into custody. She had a layover and her port of entry was Minneapolis, MN. When she went through customs they were suspicious because she had recently visited the States. They searched her luggage and found wedding photos and deduced that she was trying to live in the US. They took her into custody and interrogated her for hours, even playing a good cop/bad cop routine, while I was standing at her terminal, horrified by the nightmare that was beginning. They denied her entry and put a flag on her passport so that she could not reenter the States until we went through the process and got her green card. We later discovered that this was incorrect; she would not be able to enter the country under any condition, something that would have been nice to know before we went through the entire process. Luckily we found a loop hole.

Eri was flown back to Japan through Holland. She spent over three days straight on an airplane without a chance to even shower. With only days until our reception, we were trying frantically on both ends to find a way to get her into the country. She went back to the embassy consulate in Osaka and I was contacting my representative and USCIS. Unfortunately there was nothing they could do. They said there was no discretion on this matter and no way to even allow her to temporarily visit for our reception. This close to the reception it was impossible to cancel. Her parents could attend and it was nice that our families could meet, but it was sad that it was under these circumstances. My mother-in-law served as a substitute bride and cut the cake with me. We made the best of the situation.

The stressful part would be to decide what to do next. Fortunately I wasn’t so rooted that I was able to sell off my belongings, cancel and get a refund on my deposit for our new apartment, and cancel our phone plan. I had to sell my recording studio (I started a record label) and back out of a real estate foreclosure deal that would have earned me $200k, but I couldn’t find a lawyer to be my agent while I was out of the country. I mailed the rest of my belongings to our friends, Phil and Yukako. We devised a plan where I could get a job on base before my tourist visa expires and the base would sponsor my visa and let me stay in Japan. I had to take the first job I could get and move up from there, but it was worth it. Eri and I got our own little house and started our new lives together in Iwakuni, Japan.

We both sacrificed a lot, but we just wanted to be together. We were young and naïve and didn’t even know we were breaking the law. We thought that getting a spouse visa was as simple as applying after you entered on a tourist visa (turns out that’s exactly how I did it in Japan). It’s not like she was intending to overstay her visa. We were so busy planning and traveling that we didn’t properly research and the immigrants I did consult immigrated to the US before 9/11 and their information was out of date. I was shocked how they treated Eri like a criminal or terrorist, she was only twenty years old and didn’t fit the profile. I was also surprised at how the policy overrode common sense. It was actually harder for Eri to enter the country because she was married to me. The immigration policy ended up costing us a lot of money, hardship, and productivity and career opportunities over the years, and I must say it felt unnecessary.

Here’s the next post in the series.

Some related background and links (added by our editorial team)

A United States visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. All it does is allow the holder to travel to the United States and present himself or herself at a port of entry. The officer at the port of entry has discretionary authority to deny admission if the officer suspects immigrant intent or other violations of the terms of the visa.

Nationals of about 50 countries (including Japan, where Eri was from) are eligible to enter the United States for short term business and pleasure trips through the Visa Waiver Program. VWP entries are treated similarly to entries made while on a B1/B2 visa. A person can be denied entry based on the VWP or B1/B2 visa if it transpires that the person intends to transition to a long-term non-immigrant or immigrant status. It is also not generally permissible for somebody in the US on VWP or B1/B2 travel to transition while within the United States to a long-term non-immigrant status (such as F student status or H-1B status) or immigrant status (that Eri would have been eligible for as the wife of a US citizen).

Some related reading on denial at a port of entry:

  • Friend, relative, etc. denied entry to the U.S., U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  • DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP), United States Department of Homeland Security.
  • At the U.S. Border or Airport: What to Expect When Entering. Entering the U.S. may not be easy, even with a valid visa in hand. (NOLO.com).
  • A Tale of “Voluntary Departure” from the Comments by Bryan Caplan, EconLog, August 22, 2011, quoting Tim Worstall:

    Having been caught up in the US system once “voluntary departure” is anything but.

    On entering the country on a 10 year, multi-entry, business visa (I owned a small business in the US at the time) immigration officials decided that I should not be allowed to enter.

    I was not allowed legal representation of any kind. I was interviewed and then the notes of the interview were written up afterwards (ie, what the officer remembered he and I had said, not what was actually said).

    I refused to sign such misleading notes. I was told that if I did not I would be deported, my passport declared invalid for travel to the US for the rest of my life.

    So of course I signed and then made my “voluntary departure” which included being held in a cell until the time of my flight, being threatened with being handcuffed while going to the flight and the return of my passport only upon arrival in London.

    My 10 year multi entry visa had of course been cancelled. My attempts to get matters sorted out, so that I could visit my business, were rather hampered by the way that the interview notes which I had signed under duress were taken to be the only valid evidence by the INS (as was) that should be discussed when deciding upon visa status.

    I lost the business and haven’t bothered returning to the country in the more than decade since.

    There is no law, evidence, representation nor even accurate recording of proceedings in such “voluntary departures”. It is entirely at the whim of the agents at the border post. I was actually told by one agent “I’m gonna screw you over”.

    Something of a difference from what’s scrawled over that statue in New York really. And I’m most certainly not the only business person this sort of thing has happened to.

Some other general reading:

UPDATE: Victoria Ferauge, who has previously written a guest post for the site, wrote a post on her personal blog titled A US Immigration Tale commenting on the story:

In the last paragraph of his post I can hear his bitterness at how his wife was treated.

We were young and naïve and didn’t even know we were breaking the law. We thought that getting a spouse visa was as simple as applying after you entered on a tourist visa (turns out that’s exactly how I did it in Japan). It’s not like she was intending to overstay her visa. We were so busy planning and traveling that we didn’t properly research and the immigrants I did consult immigrated to the US before 9/11 and their information was out of date. I was shocked how they treated Eri like a criminal or terrorist, she was only twenty years old and didn’t fit the profile. I was also surprised at how the policy overrode common sense. It was actually harder for Eri to enter the country because she was married to me.

And as I read this I was amazed at how things had changed in just a few short years. Pre-911 my French husband got his Green Card in Seattle. He had landed in the US on one kind of visa and it was just a matter of going down to immigration and filling out the paperwork to get residency status based on his marriage to me, l’américaine. Very simple. No one at immigration so much as blinked twice when we explained what we wanted. The final interview lasted less than 10 minutes. That’s all it took for the very pleasant official to decide that my husband merited a Green Card.

We were just as naive as Merrill and his wife. We took for granted that because we were married, we could choose which country we wanted to live in. And our assumptions proved true at that time.

In this story we can see how a vigorous and punctilious application of immigration law can hurt not only the immigrant but the native citizen as well. Please note that the US not only lost an immigrant, but they forced one of their own into emigrating. Merrill and his wife didn’t get to choose where they wanted to live – they were forced in the direction of the country that would take both of them.

Interestingly enough, that turned out to be Japan – a country that many Americans consider to be unfriendly to immigrants.

Oh, the irony…

UPDATE 2: The post was picked up by MetaFilter and got 34 comments there. Read the MetaFilter thread: my mother-in-law served as a substitute bride.

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of Mario Chavez embracing his wife Lizeth through the US-Mexico border fence at Playas de Tijuana. The original photograph is copyright David Maung, and was published by Human Rights Watch; a higher-resolution version is available at their website.

Just a reminder: here’s the next post in the series.

Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

Continue reading “Who favors open borders?” »