Monday, 2 August 2010

Israel Criticized for Ruling on Illegal Immigrant Children

AOL News August 2, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Aug. 2) -- After more than a year of heated debate, the Israeli government has reached a compromise on whether to expel some 1,200 children of illegal foreign workers and their families, or allow them to remain in the only country most of them have known. But the government's decision to allow 800 of the children to stay and subject 400 to possible deportation was widely described as a fudge that fails to resolve a touchy issue.

The controversy has highlighted growing illegal immigration into Israel, a tiny country of just 7.6 million people. Last year about 10,000 people entered the country illicitly, either by sneaking across the border from Egypt or by overstaying work and tourist visas. There are currently 100,000 illegals in Israel, and a substantial proportion of the 150,000 legal migrant workers are expected to further swell those ranks once their visas expire.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-orthodox Shas Party says the presence of so many non-Jews threatens the Jewish character of the country. His ministry set up a special immigration police unit to track down and deport offenders, but the plight of the children, who speak Hebrew and were mostly born in Israel, inspired a noisy campaign to halt Yishai's plans.

Vardit, 9, Benita, 8, and Benedikta, 9, all daughters of illigal immigrants from Africa, attend on October 18, 2009 an exhibition in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv where portraits of children of illegal immigrants were shown to pressure the government to let them stay in the Jewish state.
Yehuda Raizner, AFP / Getty Images
Children of illegal immigrants from Africa attend an exhibition last year in Tel Aviv, Israel, where portraits of children of illegal immigrants were shown to pressure the government to let them stay in the Jewish state.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally announced the government's decision after a tense cabinet meeting that divided his own party and revealed the steely power of the minority religious groups in his ruling coalition.

"We are searching for a way to absorb and take into our hearts children who grew up here and were educated here as Israelis," Netanyahu told the cabinet in Jerusalem. "On the other hand, we do not want to create an incentive for hundreds of thousands of illegal labor migrants to flood the country."

The government said that children whose parents entered Israel legally, who spoke Hebrew, were enrolled in the school system and presented various documents within 21 days would be allowed to stay.

Isaac Herzog, the welfare minister who had campaigned for all 1,200 to remain, abstained in the cabinet vote but said afterward that it was "a reasonable decision" that would deter future illegals.

"A government has to clarify rules and procedures. It cannot act on gut feeling alone," said Herzog, adding that many of the remaining 400 children could also eventually be approved by a special committee. "It solves the problem for the majority of the children and as regards the rest, there is an appeals process and the possibility for flexibility in many borderline cases and considerable time to prepare the paperwork."

But human rights groups accused Herzog of selling out. They said the bureaucratic process engendered by the government decision was likely to lead to a nightmare race against the clock in a country where the processing of simple paperwork is notoriously slow and in a season when many government offices are closed.

Karen Tal, principal of the Bialik School in south Tel Aviv, where more than 300 of the 800 students are illegal immigrants, said the government had missed an opportunity to settle the issue.

"If the minister is right and all the children will eventually be allowed to stay, then why put them through this Via Dolorosa and the continuation of this never-ending uncertainty?" Tal asked. "Why not focus on the straightforward? There are 1,200 children in total. Why not allow them all to stay instead of differentiating between them?"

Eitan Haber, a former government adviser who now writes a column for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, called it "a dumb, senseless solution."

"Someone over there has lost it," Haber wrote. "In the past, the State of Israel has bombed nuclear reactors, made it all the way to Uganda to rescue hostages in Entebbe, wasted billions on all sorts of trains that are still not in operation, and paid hundreds of millions of shekels to people who contributed nothing to the state. Yet now the government decided that 400 children will be our downfall? Are you crazy?"

Sigal Rozen at the Hotline for Migrant Workers said the problem would simply repeat itself in five years' time because the manpower service companies who provide foreign laborers insist on rotating workers every five years to make larger profits. "There are financial interests at work; 600 new workers arrive every month," Rozen said.

Noa Maiman, an actress who has been prominent in the campaign for the children, told AOL News the decision was "cruel."

"If you already plan to do something good, we should go all the way and not have a Solomonic trial and a selection process of that sort. I believe many of the children, even if they are supposed to get the documents, will fail due to the impossible process," she said.

As part of the campaign, Maiman joined photographers and other celebrities to create an exhibition titled "Childhood" featuring portraits of 100 immigrant children talking about their likes, dislikes and fears, each one with the word "Deported" stamped across his or her chest. Maiman's portrait was of 4-year-old Fira Karbajal from Peru, who has now been saved by the decision.

Fira is named after Noa's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor now age 95. Fira's mother Magna is the old woman's caregiver, and the family say they are paying forward the kindness shown during the Holocaust, when the old lady was hidden by a Polish family who saved her life.

"Fira was born and raised at my grandmother's. The day she passes away, Fira would have been taken from us. My grandmother made me swear that we will promise to take care of her," Maiman said.

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