Analysis: Illegal migrants in the US and Israel – different leaders, different solutions

There are numerous commonalities between the illegal migrants crises that the US and Israel are experiencing.

The Holot Detention Facility in the Negev. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Holot Detention Facility in the Negev.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are numerous commonalities between the illegal migrants crises that the US and Israel are experiencing.
In terms of the relative volume of illegal migrants, both crises are unprecedented in the countries’ history and have grabbed massive national attention.
In each case, the national leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, have taken aggressive executive actions to address the crisis, above and, some say, beyond the expectations of the powers available to them under domestic or international law.
Each national leader has had his policy challenged in the nation’s highest court for being unconstitutional and currently faces a pending challenge.
That is where the similarities stop, and the vast differences begin.
Netanyahu’s policy of detention and aggressive encouragement for voluntary deportation is a get-migrants-to-leave policy.
Obama’s executive order legalizing or granting a legal path to around five million migrants fitting certain parameters is helpmigrants- stay policy.
In some ways, the prime minister has not always sounded like the one leading the charge, allowing three interior ministers – Eli Yishai, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan – to be the face of his migrant policy most of the time.
But the High Court of Justice has twice struck down the government’s migrant policy as unconstitutional for being what it characterized as too long and too arbitrary without addressing migrants’ refugee status, and each time the government came back with a similar but slightly toned-down policy mostly disregarding broader court criticism.
Also, each interior minister has pushed an aggressive getmigrants- to-leave policy.
Policies have included, according to the High Court or pro-migrant groups, numerous times taking executive actions even beyond what the policy allowed, with some of the detention summonses and deportations it has sent or carried out.
Without getting deep into specifics, Netanyahu has publicly made it clear that he supports and is behind the get- migrantsto- leave policy.
He appears undeterred by the High Court, human rights groups and international criticism that his and the government’s actions are illegal.
Obama has halted millions of deportations indefinitely and offered a clear path to citizenship or permanent residence to migrants who have lived in the US illegally for some time and meet certain standards of desirability or connection to the US.
Republican members of the US Congress and their allies have sued the Obama administration, requesting the courts to declare Obama’s executive order unconstitutional.
They say that Congressional legislation mandates the expulsion of certain illegal migrants.
Moreover, they add that while there is some narrow discretion for a US president to decide how to prioritize deportations, that does not include a sweeping power to unilaterally grant de facto amnesty for millions of migrants at a time – which critics say Obama has done.
To be sure, the contexts are not identical.
Netanyahu, as part of Israel’s parliamentary democracy, has control of the Knesset and has legislative backing for his executive actions, even if his actions have sometimes gone beyond the legislation.
Obama, in the US’s more split democracy, is at odds with the US Congress on the issue, and has backing only from the minority Congressional Democrats, who do not currently govern.
Netanyahu’s Likud base wants Israel’s illegal migrants to leave, while Obama’s Democratic base wants the US’s illegal migrants to be able to stay.
Why are both leaders acting aggressively executively and coming under attack for acting illegally, but coming to polar opposite solutions? Some would accuse Israel of racism against African migrants, and others might say Israel has a unique obligation to maintain its uniqueness as a Jewish state, versus the US which is more multicultural and does not serve as a refuge for one people.
At the end of the day though, the different outcomes might be dictated by the different number realities and time.
Even if the relative percentage of migrants in the US is smaller, more people in the US, including, extraordinarily, some Republicans like former president George W. Bush and likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush, have just concluded that the absolute number of 11 million migrants is too big a hole to plug.
Also, even as there are new US migrants, many have been in the US for decades dating back to a somewhat similar if much smaller amnesty granted by Republican president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Obama and his supporters have said that total deportation is just not feasible, requiring an alternative, more accommodating, approach.
The US president believes that the US Supreme Court, even if it criticizes his policy or somewhat reduces the number of migrants he is allowing to stay, ultimately will not get deeply enough involved to overturn his order.
Essentially, Netanyahu has said that deporting or getting 60,000 African migrants to leave (now down to under 50,000) who have been here for eight or fewer years is possible.
Even if the state does not have room to detain more than 5 to 10 percent of the migrants, Netanyahu believes that the detentions, threatened detentions, lack of work and offer of payment to leave can reverse the facts on the ground.
The prime minister is gambling that the Israeli High Court, also even as it criticizes his policy, will continue to move slowly and cautiously enough that the current Knesset law, or a fourth one if necessary, will stand.
And so after all of the law, politics and ideology which certainly play a real part in the debate, the different resolutions and whether they will succeed likely come down to a numbers game.