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A thousand children of migrant workers await deportation from Israel

Mya Guarnieri
June 11, 2010
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)
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.

Mya Guarnieri is a Jerusalem-based journalist and writer.

Mya Guarnieri is a Jerusalem-based journalist and writer.