Photo/Illutration Officials with Oarai, a town in Ibaraki Prefecture, explain anti-COVID-19 measures to leaders of the Indonesian community in May. (Provided by the Oarai town hall)

Municipalities are divided over whether to promote the widest possible protection against the spread of COVID-19 in their communities or to follow the letter of the law concerning undocumented foreign nationals.

Many local governments want to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to foreign nationals with no visa status to better protect all residents in their jurisdictions.

However, under the immigration control law, central and local government officials are obliged to report those who are staying in the country illegally to immigration authorities.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in June said local governments can choose not to report them “as an exception if doing so is believed to compromise their administrative goal” of protecting their residents with vaccines, regardless of nationality.

So far, there has been no consensus at the local level on what procedures to take regarding the ministry’s notice.

Oarai, a town with a population of 16,000 in Ibaraki Prefecture, has opted out of alerting immigration authorities about visa overstayers who join the vaccination program.

Oarai officials issue inoculation tickets for undocumented individuals as long as they show records, such as utility bills, that prove they live in the town.

In October, the town contacted a Christian church where many Indonesians congregate to spread word about the vaccine program.

About 230 Indonesians without legal status have been inoculated so far.

In spring, a novel coronavirus outbreak hit the Indonesian community in the town. And Mayor Yutaka Kunii has visited the church to ask churchgoers to forgo a large dinner party that had been planned.

About 800 foreign nationals are listed in the town’s residence registry, representing about 5 percent of the population.

Town officials said that vaccinating as many people as possible, regardless of their legal status, is a priority in terms of protecting all people in Oarai.

“The presence of unvaccinated people poses a risk of infection to other residents if undocumented immigrants are not given access to vaccines,” an official said of the town’s policy.

Undocumented foreign nationals have long been concerned that receiving the COVID-19 shots could expose their unlawful presence in Japan and lead to their deportation.

Hokota, a city of 45,000 also in Ibaraki Prefecture, issued vaccine tickets for 192 undocumented immigrants who could prove that they lived there.

But city officials informed immigration authorities about them after they were fully vaccinated.

The city said it had explained beforehand to the foreigners without legal status that they would be reported to immigration authorities after receiving the second shots.

“Our administrative goal of carrying out measures against the infectious disease will be achieved when the vaccination program is complete,” a city official said. “We are heeding the legal principle of informing immigration authorities about undocumented immigrants.”

The Gunma prefectural city of Ota, whose population of 224,000 includes about 12,000 foreign residents, issues inoculation tickets for foreign nationals who are not listed in the city’s basic resident register network as long as they can prove they live there.

The city will not report those without the proper visas, but it will recommend that they visit an immigration office and discuss their status in Japan.

The vaccination tickets are issued after the city confirms they have appeared at the office.

“When we brief them on the vaccination program, we first make clear that they are staying in Japan without legal status,” a city official said.

Although fears of arrest or deportation persist, many undocumented immigrants are now less resistant about coming forward to get their shots due to a shift in policy by immigration authorities during the pandemic, according to a man who offers vaccine consultations for foreign nationals in Ibaraki Prefecture.

“Immigration authorities have moved to spare large numbers of visa overstayers from detention as a temporary measure so that undocumented immigrants will feel less anxious about presenting themselves before them,” he said.

An estimated 83,000 individuals were staying in Japan without proper visas in 2020, when the pandemic began, according to the Immigration Services Agency.

The same year, 6,388 undocumented immigrants were exempted from being taken into custody, a sharp increase from 1,777 in 2019.

An agency official explained that the step is aimed at preventing further overcrowding at detention centers and alleviating the risk of spreading the virus among detainees.

(This article was written by Keitaro Nishizaki and Kazumichi Kubota.)