Born in Japan, but ordered out

Fida Khan, a gangly 14-year-old, told the court that immigration authorities should not deport him and his family merely because his foreign-born parents lacked proper visas when they came to Japan more than 20 years ago.

During the past two decades, his Pakistani father and Filipino mother have held steady jobs, raised children, paid taxes and have never been in trouble with the law.

“I have the right to do my best to become a person who can contribute to this society,” Fida told a Tokyo district court in Japanese, the only language he speaks.

But the court ruled last year that Fida has no right to stay in the country where he was born. Unless a higher court or the Minister of Justice intervenes, a deportation order will soon split the Khan family, sending the father, Waqar Hassan Khan, back to Pakistan, while dispatching Fida and his sister Fatima, 7, to the Philippines with their mother, Jennette.

Aggressive enforcement of Japanese immigration laws has increased in recent years as the country’s economy has floundered and the need for cheap foreign labor has fallen.

Nationality in Japan is based on blood and parentage, not place of birth. This island nation was closed to the outside world until the 1850s, when U.S. warships forced it to open up to trade. Wariness of foreigners remains a potent political force, one that politicians dare not ignore, especially when the economy is weak.

As a result, the number of illegal immigrants has been slashed, often by deportation, from 300,000 in 1995 to just 130,000, a minuscule number in comparison to other rich countries. The United States, whose population is 2 1/2 times that of Japan’s, has about 90 times as many illegal immigrants (11.6 million).

Among highly developed countries, Japan also ranks near the bottom in the percentage of legal foreign residents. Just 1.7 percent are foreign or foreign-born, compared with about 12 percent in the United States. Japan held a pivotal election last year and voters tossed out a party that had ruled for nearly 50 years. But the winner, the Democratic Party of Japan, has so far done nothing to alter immigration policy.

That policy, in a country running low on working-age people, is helping to push Japan off a demographic cliff. It already has fewer children and more elderly as a percentage of its population than any country in recorded history. If trends continue, the population of 127 million will shrink by a third in 50 years and by two-thirds in a century. By 2060, Japan will have two retirees for every three workers — a ratio that will weaken and perhaps wreck pension and health-care systems.

These dismal numbers upset Masaki Tsuchiya, who manages a Tokyo welding company that for seven years has employed Waqar Khan.

“If Khan is deported, it will not be possible to find anyone like him, as many Japanese workers have lost their hungriness,” said Tsuchiya, who has urged Japanese immigration officials to rescind the deportation order for the Khan family. “When the Japanese population is declining, I believe our society has to think more seriously about immigration.”

At the Ministry of Justice, immigration officials say they are simply carrying out rules politicians make. The rules, though, are not particularly precise. They grant wide leeway to bureaucrats to use their own discretion in deciding who stays and who gets deported. Last year, immigration officials granted “special permits” to 8,500 undocumented foreigners, with about 65 percent of them going to those who had married a Japanese citizen.

Exercising their discretion under the law, immigration authorities last year offered Noriko Calderon, 13, the wrenching choice of living with her parents or living in her homeland. The girl, who was born and educated in the Tokyo suburbs, could stay in Japan, the government ruled. But she had to say goodbye to her Filipino mother and father, who were deported after living illegally in Japan for 16 years. Following tearful goodbyes at a Tokyo airport, Noriko remained in Japan with an aunt.

Japan’s growing need for working-age immigrants has not gone unnoticed by senior leaders in government and business. Slightly relaxed rules have admitted skilled professionals and guest workers. The number of legal foreign residents reached an all-time high of 2.2 million at the end of 2008, with Chinese accounting for the largest group, followed by Koreans, Brazilians (mostly of Japanese descent) and Filipinos.

Still, experts say these numbers are far too low to head off significant economic contraction. A group of 80 politicians said last year that the country needs 10 million immigrants by 2050. Japan’s largest business federation called for 15 million, saying: “We cannot wait any longer to aggressively welcome necessary personnel.”

Yet the treatment of foreign workers already in Japan is unpredictable. The government opened service centers last year to help foreign workers who lost their jobs to recession. For the first time, it offered them free language training, along with classes on social integration. As that program got underway, however, the government began giving money — about $12,000 for a family of four — to foreign workers, if they agreed to go home immediately and never come back to work.

The Khan family’s troubles began two years, when a policeman nabbed Waqar Khan on his way home from work. He was detained for nine months. Police in Japan often stop foreign-looking people on the street and ask for residency documents.

The letter of the law was clearly against Khan and his wife. He had overstayed a 15-day tourist visa by 20 years. She came into the country on a forged passport.

But they have refused to sign deportation documents, arguing that although their papers are bad, their behavior as foreigners has been exemplary. Under Japanese law, foreigners are eligible to become naturalized citizens if they have lived in the country for more than five years, have good behavior and are self-sufficient.

The Khans also argue that their children, who regard themselves as Japanese, are assets for Japan. “It is a bit weird that the country needs children, but it is saying to us, go away,” Khan said.

The family’s lawyer, Gen’ichi Yamaguchi, has tried — and so far failed — to convince immigration officials and judges that the Khans are just the sort of hardworking, Japanese-speaking immigrants that the country should embrace for the sake of its own future.

“During the bubble years, the number of illegal workers increased a lot and the police looked the other way,” Yamaguchi said. “Japan has always looked at immigrants as cheap but disposable labor.”

An appeals court is scheduled to rule on the Khan case in the first week of February.