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Japan born and raised, boy of Iranian-Bolivian descent fights deportation order

Ghassemi Farhad, right, and his mother Liliana answer questions at their home in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo. His father Seyfollalah bought the nativity scene wall tapestry behind them from his home country of Iran to celebrate the birth of his son. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

KANAGAWA -- Farhad Ghassemi was born and raised in Japan, by an Iranian father and a Japanese-Bolivian mother. The teenager loves basketball, attends a prefectural high school here, and speaks Japanese daily, at home and in class. He barely understands either Farsi or Spanish, his parents' mother tongues.

Still, the government of Japan considers him a foreigner overstaying his visa, and could deport him to Iran at any time. The 16-year-old wants his day in court to explain why he can only live in Japan, but the government has refused to listen.

Ghassemi has been on "provisional release" for eight years now, since his family lost a court battle in 2010 against a government deportation order targeting the boy, his father Seyfollah Ghassemi, 50, and mother Liliana Nagata, 49. Seyfollah was arrested in May 2008 for allegedly overstaying his visa, 16 years after his initial entry into Japan in 1992.

Because of his legal status, Ghassemi needs permission form the Immigration Bureau of Japan -- a part of the Justice Ministry -- just to go outside of Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. He has turned down friends' invitations to head to the capital for some fun, telling them that he cannot go because his parents are strict. "I couldn't say I was overstaying my visa," he said.

The teen filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court in January this year seeking the nullification of the 2010 deportation order because his father had been detained by immigration authorities and there arose the possibility that he and the boy, both Iranian nationals, would be sent to Iran. Ghassemi's lawyer Takeshi Ohashi explains, "His father wanted to take the case to court because he wanted at least the boy to be given status of residence in Japan. It is unthinkable for Ghassemi, who only speaks Japanese, to live in Iran."

Moreover, Iran is an Islamic nation. Seyfollah is a Muslim, but Ghassemi, like many of his fellow Japanese high school students, has no religion, while his mother Liliana is Christian. Under Iranian law, non-Muslim women married to Muslim men must covert. Their children may be persecuted if they do not adhere to Islam. "Japan is the only place where this family can live at ease," Ohashi said.

Ohashi sought to have his young client questioned in court. "We want to show how deep he is rooted in Japan, where he was born and raised," said the attorney. "Deporting him to Iran is out of question." Ghassemi's testimony, he hoped, would move the judge and show that the government was committing a human rights violation by trying to send the boy to Iran.

The government's lawyers, however, insisted in an August hearing that there is no need for such questioning because there is no dispute over the facts of the case. The district court judge was sympathetic to the government, saying the need to question the boy was "doubtful." However, no final decision was issued at that time. Ghassemi sat in the plaintiff's seat for the entire proceeding, his body tense with worry beneath his Japanese high school uniform.

After the hearing, lawyer Ohashi told reporters outside the court, "The government does not care how many friends he has or how much he is accustomed to Japanese life. Mr. Ghassemi was born and raised in Japan, and did not choose to be an illegal resident. Wouldn't it be wrong for him to be sent to a country where he faces possible persecution and family breakup?"

Seyfollah, in a meeting room at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, appeared distraught when he heard about his family's situation. "I and my wife forced this life onto our only son," he said. He has been in detention for over a year now, and has problems sleeping due to headaches and ringing in his ears.

It was in this same center that a 32-year-old Indian man in detention committed suicide. He was held after his visa expired while he was applying for refugee status. Have the center's conditions improved since then? "The only change is that we have more guards. They frequently check on us in our rooms, and even examine the shower rooms when we're using them because the man killed himself while taking a shower," said Seyfollah. "I guess immigration officials do not think the suicide happened because they did something wrong."

Seyfollah lives for the half-hour meetings he gets with his wife and son once a month. Explaining why he filed the suit against the Japanese government with his son as the only plaintiff, he told the Mainichi Shimbun, "If my son is forced to go to a country where he has never lived, or doesn’t understand the language, all the work he's done in school will have been in vain. My son is my treasure. Only me being deported is like leaving a part of my body here, but it's for my son."

Seyfollah continued that there are many people like him at the detention facility. "I want the court to make proper decisions for children like my son."

The next hearing in the case will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 2 at the Tokyo District Court.

In 2015, the Ministry of Justice ordered its immigration bureau chiefs nationwide to strengthen the monitoring of foreigners in Japan. The next year it issued another directive stating its goal of "shrinking" the number of "foreigners causing concern to our society" by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 2020.

At the same time, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will begin accepting foreign workers into the construction, farming and nursing care industries next April, as employers in these areas complain about an acute labor shortage. There are expected to be some 500,000 such workers in the country by around 2025. In tandem with this open-door policy, the Immigration Bureau will be upgraded to an agency.

But core supporters of the Abe administration and the right-leaning members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are mounting strong opposition to the policy, arguing that those workers will settle in Japan as immigrants.

The administration "seems to be trying to send the message that it is accepting more foreigners but is also cracking down on 'bad foreigners,'" says lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, who specializes in defending the human rights of foreigners in Japan. He continues that Japan's current immigration policy is "based on the mistaken ideology that 'foreigners are dangerous,' not on the reality of the foreign workers who have toiled in this country."

According to data obtained via Diet members by a national network against long-term detention of foreigners by Japan's immigration authorities, 1,309 people were detained at nine immigration facilities across the nation as of July 31. Of the total, 709, or 54 percent, had been locked up for six months or more.

Is the administration trying to satisfy both the business community, which demands foreign workers, and groups making xenophobic arguments? Either way, the human rights of people living in our society should not be sacrificed.

(Japanese original by Jun Ida, Evening Edition Department)

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