Sunday morning saw the first wave of foreign workers’ families arrive at the Interior Ministry office in Tel Aviv to submit applications they hope will allow them to remain in the country. This follows a cabinet decision last week that determined that children of foreign workers who meet several criteria would be given permanent residence status.
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The criteria are: They must be registered in the school system; they must speak Hebrew; they have to be either Israeli-born or in the country prior to their 13th birthday; they must be in Israel for at least five consecutive years; and their parents must have a legal work permit.
The parents and siblings of children who are allowed to stay will be granted temporary residency permits. Barring any new developments prejudicing their status, the family permits will be renewed annually until the child turns 21, at which time the other family members may request permanent resident status.
The families of children meeting the government’s criteria were lining up, forms in hand, at daybreak. By 6 a.m., there were already 20 families waiting for the ministry’s doors to open.
Once inside, they discovered that the ministry had prepared for them. Signs in English and Hebrew pointed the way to a specially designated section of the building, where six officials from the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) waited to meet with them.
Forms were available for those who needed them, and a waiting section with rows of chairs and a water cooler had been set up. The line was managed by a wellordered numbering system, and ushers made sure that proper order was maintained.
Also on hand was the ministry’s public relations mechanism.
PIBA spokeswoman Sabine Hadad welcomed reporters who came to report on the process, and introduced them to the head of the ministry’s Foreigners Department, Yossi Edelstein, who is overseeing the process.
“Right now we have 20 people working on the project here in Tel Aviv, and if we need more personnel, they will be here within minutes,” Edelstein said. “Our objective is to make the process as quick and simple as possible.
“When a family arrives, they take a ticket and wait for their number to be called. Every family must fill out an application form and provide supporting documents.
The type of documents we require are those that anybody who has lived in Israel for any amount of time should have on hand – things like passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates, school registration forms and things like that,” he said.
“Here, we check all the papers and notify the applicants if anything is missing. We won’t be able to tell them whether their applications are approved on the spot, but we will tell them if they need to provide any additional documents. The in-depth analysis and decision-making will be done in the back office by PIBA staff,” he said.
Edelstein, who chaired the interministerial committee that determined the criteria for granting children (and their families) resident status, said the committee had not made its recommendations with specific numbers in mind, and stressed that the numbers mentioned in the media could change.
“Everybody reported that 800 children will stay and 400 will be deported, but there is no guarantee that those will be the actual numbers. Our committee didn’t work toward meeting a quota; we established what we believed were reasonable criteria,” he said.
“There will be people who leave here today with bad news as far as they’re concerned,” Edelstein said. “Those who can’t meet the criteria will be requested to leave the country within 30 days. We will be setting up a desk here for people who are willing to leave voluntarily. Those whose applications are denied will be able to come, and we’ll help them make the travel arrangements and even help them purchase flight tickets.”
Many of the families arrived confident in the knowledge that their children met all the requirements, and that they had all the necessary papers. Over the past week, since the cabinet adopted the recommendations of the interministerial committee, volunteers from human rights organizations have been hard at work, coaching the families on how to fill out the forms and how to prepare for the interviews.
“We have all the listed documents. Barring any surprises, we should be all right,” said Oscar Olivier, a foreign worker from Congo.
Olivier, who has lived in Israel for 16 years, hopes that with the aid of his seven-year-old daughter, he will finally gain the security he and his family long for. But as a longtime activist in the foreign workers community, he knows to expect the unexpected.
“There are always surprises. There are always exceptions to the rules. We think that we are safe, but you never know which exception will prove to be the vital one that will pull the carpet from under you,” he said. “As long as the Interior minister [Eli Yishai of Shas] is against the move, we know we are on shaky ground.”
After a three-hour wait and an hour-and-a-half with a PIBA official, Olivier found he’d have to come back the next day. He had forgotten to bring a copy of his rental agreement, which he needed in order to prove his residency.
“I hope that that will be it,” he said.
Sigal Rozen, policy director for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, was one of the people on hand to help the families fill out their applications. She said that the biggest challenge many of the families faced was dealing with the state bureaucracy and the strict demands of the ministry.
“I’m sorry to say that some families will be deported simply because of cumbersome regulations and inefficiency. People who have or in principle can get their hands on all the necessary documents simply won’t have enough time to retrieve them,” Rozen said. “Someone who is missing a birth certificate, for example, has to wait for the ministry itself to issue it. This might take weeks and I’d like to remind you that the families have only three weeks to submit an application.”
The hotline, together with a coalition of five other NGOs, submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on Sunday asking that the court extend the time for applications from three weeks to 90 days.
“We are hopeful that with the aid of the court and with the backing of
some of the cabinet ministers, we will be able to assure that none of
the children will be deported,” Rozen said.
Also on Sunday, the heads of various Holocaust survivor organizations
sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asking him to
cancel the decision to deport 400 children.
“The look in the sad eyes of those children and their tears cannot leave
us, children of the Holocaust, apathetic to their situation,” read the
letter penned by Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations of
Holocaust Survivors in Israel. “It is not acceptable that a Jewish
government act so inhumanely and without conscience.
“We believe that the government should be stricter in the issuing of
visas for foreign workers and begin expelling foreign workers who are
here illegally. We appreciate that there may be judicial and economical
rationales for the move. At the same time, it is worthy that we show
compassion, heart and humanity toward those children whom fate brought
to Israel through no fault of their own,” the letter said.