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A thousand children of migrant workers await deportation from Israel

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The child of immigrants plays during a Tel Aviv protest last month calling on the Israeli government to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Arizona’s controversial Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act takes effect in July. Last month, Republican State Senator Russell Pearce, a staunch conservative, announced plans to promote legislation that would strip U.S. citizenship from the children of illegal immigrants. Speaking to Reuters, Pearce referred to the kids as “jackpot” or “anchor babies.” These children, English speakers born on U.S. soil, “are not citizens,” he added.

Pearce’s words echo one side of a similar debate in Israel surrounding some 1,200 children of illegal migrant workers. Here, cynics call them “visa babies” because Israel’s long-standing policy against the deportation of minors provides protection to parents who lack legal status. Interior Minister Eliyahu Yishai sees these Israeli-born children as a threat to the character of the Jewish state and hopes to expel them this summer, along with their parents. Critics have slammed the move as inhumane. They point out that the children attend local schools, speak Hebrew, and celebrate Jewish holidays.

Two weeks ago, some 8,000 protesters—mostly Israeli, with many migrant laborers—gathered in the courtyard of the Tel Aviv Museum in a last-ditch effort to prevent the deportation. Classmates stood in support of the friends they might see expelled. Mothers could be overheard explaining to their children, in the gentlest way possible, why the deportation might happen.

The event came in the wake of the news that a governmental committee, convened to determine the children’s fate, recommended permanent residency. A final decision from Yishai could come any day now.

Organized by the grassroots movement Israeli Children, UNICEF Israel, and Israel’s National Student Union, the protest was an emotional appeal to the government. Under the banner “We don’t have another country,” the 1,200 children and their supporters raised signs that read “Don’t deport us,” and “Children of Israel.” Two young Filipino girls held a message, written in Hebrew: “Israel is my home. Here I learned to read Hebrew. All my friends are here. I am an Israeli child.”

Israel is home to approximately 300,000 migrant laborers, most of whom come from Asia. Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Nepalese are usually caretakers to the elderly; Chinese are generally employed in construction; Thai are found in agriculture. The Interior Ministry estimates that 250,000 of these workers are illegal.

Israel began replacing Palestinian laborers with foreign workers in the late 1980s, during the First Intifada. The foreign population grew steadily from there, ballooning during the early days of the Second Intifada.

A growing community meant babies. While these children are allowed to attend Israeli schools, they receive few state benefits. Unlike children born on U.S. soil, who automatically become U.S. citizens, children born in Israel are granted neither citizenship nor permanent residency. And although many children of foreign parents would like to serve in the Israeli army, service does not make soldiers eligible for citizenship in Israel, as it can in the United States.

The current attempt to deport this group of children is part of a larger campaign to clear the country of illegal migrant laborers by 2013. The state also aims to gradually reduce dependency on legal foreign workers, as well. But in 2009 alone, the Ministry of Interior issued 120,000 work permits to foreigners.

While some do overstay their visas, migrant laborers can also lose their legal status if they quit, are fired, or if an employer dies.

Both legal and illegal workers are protected under Israel’s labor laws. But abuses often go unreported as most migrant laborers are frightened by the threat of losing their visa. And one of the biggest difficulties facing migrant laborers and their advocates is that there are no laws to battle, since all of Israel’s policies regarding foreign workers are set by the Ministry of the Interior.

The policies are draconian. Migrant laborers who enter into romantic relationships in Israel are likely to lose their residency permits if the Interior Ministry gets wind of the bond. And a worker who gives birth in Israel is forced to pick between her visa and her baby—keep one, lose the other. This is a choice most of the 1,200 children’s mothers have had to make.

Also problematic is the Ministry of the Interior’s tendency to ignore the rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2006, justices struck down the binding arrangement and likened it to “modern day slavery.” In 2007, the Supreme Court recommended that the state change the policy that effectively punishes migrant laborers for having families. But to date the Ministry of the Interior has not amended either.

Oded Feller, an attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says that migrant laborers and their children “should be treated by law, not regulations and policies of the Ministry of the Interior.” He adds that the state shouldn’t make decisions as crises arrive and should have laws—not policies—regarding non-Jews. “As long as Israel will have migrant workers,” Feller says, “we’ll have children born and raised” in Israel.

As the foreign population has mushroomed, Israel has increasingly relied on aggressive enforcement procedures. A wave of arrests and expulsions battered the foreign community in 2002 and 2003. Families were torn apart as Israel expelled men in hopes that women and children would follow. A Filipino woman whose husband was not deported during this period claims that her husband sleeps in the car at night for fear that immigration police will discover him.

In July 2009, the newly formed Oz Unit took to the streets to crack down on illegal migrant laborers. Oz, Hebrew for strength, also began enforcing the previously ignored “Gedera-Hadera” policy, which forbids African refugees from living in the center of the country. Deportation of the 1,200 children and their parents was scheduled for August 1.

South Tel Aviv, home to thousands of migrant laborers and African refugees, was hard hit. The Oz Unit aggressively pursued foreigners, rounding them up by the busload and taking them to detention centers. Many of those arrested were African refugees or single mothers, two groups ineligible for deportation.

After a public outcry, the “Gedera-Hadera” policy was canceled. But as July drew to a close, the fate of the children remained undecided.

Massive protests were held. The children donned shirts with the words “Don’t deport me” hand-written in Hebrew. Israel’s small community of Latin American workers held signs saying, “No hay niños ilegales,” there are no illegal children—an image we could end up seeing in Arizona.

President Shimon Peres penned an emotional letter to Yishai, asking him to cancel the expulsion. “Who, if not a people who suffered embitterment in the lands of exile, should be sensitive to their fellow man living amongst them?” Peres wrote, according to Haaretz.

Drawing on his visit to a South Tel Aviv school attended by many of the children, Peres continued, “I heard Hebrew ring naturally from their mouths. I felt their connection and their love for Israel and their desire to live in it, to serve in its army and to help to strengthen it.”

In the eleventh hour, the government delayed the deportation for three months. In November, Netanyahu announced that the children could finish out the school year. Still, hundreds of illegal migrant laborers have been deported, and thousands have left voluntarily. This once-vibrant neighborhood—filled with impromptu markets, food stands, and the chattering of workers and refugees—is now depressed.

In her modest apartment outside of Tel Aviv, Judith, a domestic helper from the Philippines, says she is most worried about her children, aged 8 and 15. “They don’t know how to leave,” she says.

Judith and her husband Eldy, who is also Filipino, have been in Israel for almost two decades. They lost their visas a few years ago when their employer left the country. Their Israeli-born and -raised kids don’t speak Tagalog. Like most of the 1,200 children, they speak English with their parents and Hebrew with each other.

Michelle, Judith and Eldy’s teenage daughter, says, “I want to go to the army, I want to study here. I feel Israeli.” Indeed, her dress, cadence, and mannerisms lend Michelle the air of an Israeli.

But during Christmas, Judith was afraid to put a tree in the window. “We’re afraid to walk on the street,” she says. “We live like criminals.”

Mya Guarnieri is a freelance journalist and writer based in Tel Aviv.

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Esther says:

Israel has lost its “jewishness,” however little it ever had. It has become just like any other country in the world… it has forgotten how to “treat the foreigners amongst us!” It has forgotten its long history of being a foreigner and a minotiry amongst other nations. How far removed from present reality are the teachings of the Torah!

Judy says:

Just when I think I cannot become more discouraged about Israel, along comes an article like this. It is small comfort that I live in a country (USA) with comparable problems, attitudes, and approaches (though the idea that the Africans cannot live in the middle of the city sounds particularly intolerable). I have always wanted/needed Israel to be better than the ordinary worse. I know some people complain about a double standard–requiring more of Israel–but what is the point of a Jewish state if it does not strive for something worthy? Is it safety alone? And can safety be found if the moral heart is lost?

Phillip Cohen says:

I am horrified.
Every aspect of Israeli immigrant policy is racist. Children born on Israeli turf is Israeli. No rationalizations for expelling children who speak/read/write Hebrew and was born in Israel is acceptable. Because a person is not Jewish or has brown or black skin does not matter. It just makes it worse that our Israel wants to desert them. In regard to the Filippine population living in Israel it is a double disgrace that anyone should want to have them leave. During World War ll, the Philippines provided visas to as many European Jews as possible in order to save them from the reach of the Nazis. They would have rescued more Jews but they were invaded by the Japanese. Today many Filippinos take care of our grandparents and children. We should treat them as they should be treated — like family.
As far as keeping Africans out of the center of Israel, never have I heard of a more racist policy.
Israel, do better. Fix your policies and laws. Be less racist. Much less. As far as that character in Arizona, we will take care of him. We will vote him out of office.
Bigotry is disgusting.

billie says:

Utterly appalling… Makes me want to weep. I spend a good deal of my time advocating for Israel, the Israel that the chalutzim envisioned. How can I continue when these despicable attitudes and actions seem to be part of the new ethos. for shame…

HollyMartins says:

I thought only America was stupid enough to take in anchor babies.

You know that no other countries take in anchor babies>

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

As heartbreaking as it is, Israel will have to make up its mind..either a Jewish State or become just another state which will mean Pres. Obama or whoever is the nextPresident of the U.S. will have the way to demand the right of return to the Palestinians.

Make up your minds. It is different than here in the United States. Uninformed idiots in this country have not read the Federal Law which is more severe than the Arizona Law.

Megyn Kelly, lawyer, reporter on the Supreme Couurt and now has her own show on Fox Cable News, read the Federal Law on O’Reilly. She read it to all the viewers and in that law, a policeman can look at anyone and question them with no probable cause for their ID and papers.

Wake up, protestors and decide where your allegiance stands. Remember, anti-semitism is growing all over this world again and who knows when they will throw us Jews out from Brittain, France, Germany, Italy etc.???

Keep some room for the Jews that will be expelled. Pres.Obama has opened the door as Goebles did against the Israelis which means all the Jews.

Shachar says:

“In July 2009, the newly formed Oz Unit took to the streets to crack down on illegal migrant laborers. Oz, Hebrew for strength….”

One of the overlooked aspects of recent events in Israel (and not just regarding the troubling issue of the migrant workers), is the appalling degradation of the Hebrew language – the “holy tongue”. Words like “oz” which have mystical, kabbalistic meaning as aspect of the Divine are now used to signify the abuse of power by the police and government. This is what giants like Gershom Scholem were worried about in the 1920s and 1930s.

In a time of limited resources, a society has to make choices.

In the US, the issue of illegal immigrants and their costs to the public coffers are real – for education, health, etc. What to do? There are federal laws not being enforced and that is what Arizona is attempting to remedy. Racism has little to do with it – despite the medias and partisan criticism.

There are black “African” Jews from Ethiopia in Israel, as well as black Yemenite Jews, etc. They are legal immigrants, legal residents, and even citizens.

Yes, there is discrimination among different groups of Israeli citizens; that is what we people unfortunately do and we should work to remedy. But the desire to deport illegal immigrants, whether in Israel or the US is not racism.

What is the law that forbids “Africans” from the center of the country? I do not see evidence of such a law. There are African Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere all over Israel. But there are laws about illegal immigrants – that is a different matter.

Jonny says:

I often would wander the streets of South Tel Aviv and be quite amazed and the social fabric going on there. I also used to volunteer for an after-school club in Florentin, South Tel Aviv.

I was amazed to see children from all around the world – Philipinos, Africans, Sri Lankans – all running around, playing, and speaking to each other in HEBREW!

While I agree that Israel must completely halt any more foreign workers from entering, to deport children born and raised in Israel doesn’t sound good to me. A better approach would be to absorb these children and in particular their parents, and let them live and grow in Israel. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority remain secular or even took on Jewish tradition, which would be a win for Israel.

That being said, this would then run the risk of the rest of the foreigners simply procreating so that they may stay in Israel.

DOC ZEE says:

HOLLY MARTINS ??? Really ??? If its True, its Kool !!!

All of you who are upset with Israel over getting rid of Anchor Babies, and their leeching parents, are all wrong, and obviously Scripturally Ignorant … Until you learn Torah … Shut Up !!!

Rachel Port says:

I live in Arizona, and I feel this twice as hard. Instead of issuing new work permits, why not match resident workers with available jobs? I agree that Jews need a place to go when they have to leave another country, but that doesn’t mean it has to deport children who are native Israelis, whether citizens or not. There are more mentions in Torah of the rule of kindness to strangers, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt, than of any other commandment. If this deportation happens, Israel will lose a little more of its soul as a Jewish state.

rachel says:

The people who employ illegal immigrants are the real culprits. Go after them, as we should be doing in the U.S.. Another contributing factor to the problem is the disdain so many Israelis display for manual labor and other occupations considered beneath them.

Mary T/ says:

No one is taking children from their parents. The question is whether foreign children, with their parents, should go back to their countries of origin. This is an issue in every country with immigrants.

Israel is the world’s outstanding immigrant country–mostly Jews. Now others are flowing to it. Some people actually pass through Egypt to get to Israel! Why? Isn’t Egypt a good place to settle?

There are refugees too, but here I am talking about the economic migrants, from Eritrea, Peru, Thailand, Phillipines, etc, which make up the majority.

Phillip Cohen says: “I am horrified.
Every aspect of Israeli immigrant policy is racist.”

Most comments here are self righteous, bigoted and wrong. Why do you people expect more of the Jewish State than of other countries around the world?

Turkey is about to deport tens of thousands of Armenians living there illegally. Does any one call their policies racist.

Is some self righteous Phillip Cohen telling us that they are horrified?

Has any one said that Turkey should not exist because it is not perfect?

The same is true of most European countries who routinely deport people living there without formal papers.

You people disgust me. You are not moral and you are not right. Just moralistic and antisemitic. (Yes I know you are all or most of you “Jewish” and speak as “Jews.”) Except that you don’t speak as Jews, you speak as people who hate ordinary Jews.

I am not perfect and don’t need your permission to keep on breathing.

LIsa says:

Do not punish innocent children. Close the door to immigration and work to resolve the “problem” You and only YOU, ISRAEL, have created. Support your laboring “family” as they support you. Absorb them as your own. Do the right thing. YOu know you are always under the microscope-not fair, but never changing. Portray yourself in a positive light, Israel. Be a trendsetter. Don’t follow Arizona-that state disgusts me and many other Americans as well. Love those that come to Israel to help you do the jobs you don’t want to do. Love the children of those laborers as your own.Set an example the world can follow. You let them in-now do the right thing. These people and their children are not garbage-they are people who want to be citizens and you let them on to your land. Do the right thing and move on. More pressing issues to deal with….

To Lisa says:

Lisa, you do understand that not everyone agrees with you.

Your disgust isn’t a basis for policy. Lots of things in the world disgust different people. Many antisemites say that they are disgusted by Jews. Should we make policy about minorities based on their “disgusts?”

There may be reasons for a country to deport or not to deport aliens. It’s up to that country to decide. If these children will be worse off in their home countries that’s one thing, however you don’t know that that is the case.

Let’s not pile on Israel just because it is a Jewish State or because you are Jewish, if you are Jewish.

Marisa Elana says:

I live in a Jerusalem neighborhood where there are many, many elderly residents, many of them immigrants from the US, South Africa, and Europe, and nearly every one of them has his or her own foreign worker. These are legal workers; they have Visas that were granted by the Foreign Ministry. One of the most horrible things (I think) is the connection of the work visa to the employer, and the expiration of the visa upon the death of the employer. Given that so many of the workers are caring for our elderly parents and grandparents, I would hope that we would repay the favor by then caring for the future of the worker, and at the very least giving each worker an extended visa in order to look for another job, if they so desire. When a worker has cared for someone for more than 5 or 10 years, which happens often, has learned Hebrew and has put down roots here, there should be a path to citizenship available.

Beware the law of unintended consequences. After the 6 Day War, with Israel’s neighbors refusing to negotiate, she felt free to begin settling the West Bank, with apparently little thought to what that night mean a generation later. In the 80s, she began importing foreign workers, with apparently little concern that they might have children. Who said the Jews were so smart?

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A thousand children of migrant workers await deportation from Israel

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