In 2011 I was arrested, then detained for overstaying my visa in Japan. During my lengthy stay at the Tokyo immigration detention center I met a lot of people, heard a lot of stories, read a lot of books and considered a lot of things.


Immigration and the rights immigrants should be afforded are hot topics both in the USA and in Japan. These are things I learned the hard way living 2 years as an illegal immigrant.

1)You are an easy victim

Simply by being “undocumented”, by definition, you don’t have documents declaring your “right” to be in said country. Why does this matter? Apart from international law, it also means that you are, nearly by default, always on the losing end of any legal battle against a resident of that country.

“But of course! Shouldn’t it be that way?!” Some of you are shouting.

What’s morally right is what is right, and one’s level of documentation should not impact legal proceedings. Cries of “But he’s an illegal!” should count for naught, but often, they count for everything and in every kind of case; rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, identity theft, blackmail, extortion, assault and on and on…

Too many cases get boiled down to “But she’s an illegal.”

When this happens, justice does not.

2)You can never relax

The prevailing image, particularly in the USA, is that the “illegals” are all lying around under beach umbrellas, swilling Tecate-Light and checking their online bank accounts for their monthly EBT payments.


This is B.S. Being undocumented, especially in the USA or Japan, for example, means that it’s likely someone is coming to get you at some point and they are not picking you up to take you on a magical trip to Sea World. The plan is to either deport you or lock you up.

To Review: You don’t have the piece of paper we say you should have, so now you will lose your freedom.

It’s humiliating, it’s expensive and it’s terrifying for someone who has never committed a criminal act in his or her life, and frankly, even for someone who has.

 3)Your Family life is Totally Dysfunctional

Love this show.
Love this show.

So, you are living undocumented, for whatever reason, something happens, your child or significant other, needs you to come to such and such place; their school, the tax office, the city hall, the (god forbid!) police station or even the bank and guess what? You can’t go. Anything, which might require your identification being checked is a risk you can’t take. Not if you want to stay in this person’s life.

Also, someone “back home” could get sick. Do you risk going to visit and never being allowed back to your adopted home?

4)You are Constantly Lying, even to Yourself

Because it totally works AGAIN.
Because it totally works AGAIN.

If you live the life of an undocumented alien inevitably you start lying. Someone asks, “How long is your visa for?” And you lie. You lie and tell some story. You do this because you don’t want to be that guy. You lie because you have the illusion of a stable life and if you have never been in this situation you cannot possibly understand how vital maintaining this illusion is, even to yourself.

Over time, this catches up to you. So does scrambling around attempting to avoid giving this person a document or that person a document. You are constantly gambling: “Yes, I will get her, the manager, HR (whoever) a copy of my new passport and visa next week.” You just lie, and hope people forget or don’t follow-up.

And then…

 5)When you do come Clean, nobody really gets it

Triple Threat! I hate her by the way.
Triple Threat! I hate her by the way.

When I finally came totally clean and told my family I was living here undocumented the general reaction was “…So?” They just didn’t get it. Normal residents in the country and particularly the citizens of that country rarely understand the severity of being found out as undocumented. They imagine it will involve an apology and a long afternoon at the immigration office “sorting it all out.”

They have no idea it can involve 8 police officers, months of incarceration, lengthy interrogations, the destruction of your professional life, personal relationships, decapitation of one’s savings and any semblance of a decent existence and all because a sticker in a little book is out of date.

6) It’s not “Jail” but it’s Jail

It is widely held, based on various international treaties, that illegal immigration or the breaking of immigration regulations, although against the law, is not punishable under the criminal umbrella but rather via civil penalties such as detainment and deportation.

But what is “detainment?” Well, it’s a lot like being locked in jail, in fact, that is exactly what it is. Sure, the circumstances detailing the severity of one’s detainment might vary from country to country but make no mistake: You are not allowed to leave and your freedom has been taken away. In Japan, immigration detention has very few differences compared to normal pre-sentence jail time. You are locked up, you can’t leave and your belongings and person are subject to regular search and confinement.

Detained? For a minute I thought you meant JAIL. I am SO relieved.
Detained? For a minute I thought you meant JAIL. I am SO relieved.

What’s more, and potentially the single solitary thing, which makes “detainment” considerably worse than actual jail time, is that there is no end in sight. You were not sentenced and there is no deadline. You are locked up in a kind of hellish limbo with no information about the length of your stay. Some people are detained for years. Some people die.

 7)You get caught in more law breaking just to Survive

For example, one overstays one’s allowed period of time by accident. While not realizing it technically you have broken the law. Now, you continue to work, this is another law broken. You fail to report yourself to the immigration authorities, another law broken.   After realizing you are six months past due, instead of turning yourself in you decide to just finish the year, you lie to your company and continue to use your expired identification card, another law broken. You move residences and do not report the move for fear of being found out with expired documents, something all Japanese residence, native or otherwise must do, and you have broken another law.

You evil piece of shit.
You evil piece of shit.

8) You live completely dependent on whoever is covering for you/vouching for you.

Unless you are like the guy I met in “detainment” from India who had overstayed a 3 month tourist visa, for two years, and never worked due to his families fabulous wealth, the chances are whoever is employing you during your undocumented period is essentially your defacto owner.

After I paid my dues, literally, and left the warm embrace of the Japanese judicial system, I was hired back by my former company as a contract worker. There was one caveat: I would be commuting 2 hours, one way, three days a week to a contract absolutely nobody else would take.

Then a year later, due to a new contract to make a little more money, the company illegally yanked me from the location, and put me in a new location for less pay, violating my contract. Did I call the authorities? No.

Because I had no way to get another job and these people knew I was working illegally, they were tacitly supporting it and they knew I had no recourse but to take what I was given. They knew I had a kid and bills to pay and the leverage they had was strong.   The best part: I was still paying federal and city taxes.

Now, imagine if instead of a 33 year old man, this was a 19 year old Vietnamese girl. The chances of someone taking advantage of her situation wildly increase and are infinitely darker, and this just because she doesn’t have the right papers?

9) You are portrayed as some kind of mooch, dead beat or criminal


Fenster: They treat me like a criminal. I’ll end up a criminal.
Hockney: You are a criminal.
Fenster: Why you gotta go and do that? I’m trying to make a point.

Sure, some undocumented residents might be bad, but a lot of the documented native born population is as well and for every “free-loading Mexican” you point a finger at there are 10 more from various countries, including Mexico, who work much harder than you and they have carved their lives out with their own bare hands. Nobody gave them anything; they worked for it.

The most prevalent stereotypes of the undocumented alien are that of a criminal or a mooch; sucking away at benefits they have no right too. But the vast majority of undocumented workers just want to do the following: Work hard in a place that is providing something their home country could not, raise their family and be left alone.

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