(photo credit: courtesy)
Arguing that his unit has learned from mistakes that generated uncomplimentary headlines, Immigration Police Lt.-Cmdr. Effi Mor promised in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week that his officers have been getting a crash course in displaying greater sensitivity as they tackle one of their more difficult challenges: dealing with people whose sole crime is being here illegally.
Just over two years ago, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a watchdog body that lobbies for the rights of thousands of foreign workers in Israel, petitioned the High Court of Justice, accusing the Immigration Police of being violent and overly aggressive in its search for illegal aliens and chided the unit for not going after the real criminals - the agencies that brought them here.
Both before the lawsuit and in the months that followed, the local media had a field day reporting on dozens of cases of migrant workers, some legal and others who are here illegally (sometimes for legitimate reasons), who had been mistreated, beaten and eventually deported at the hands of this newly established body.
In the five-and-a-half years since its inception, the Immigration Police has undergone a transformation in both its behavior on the ground and its focus in general, claims Mor, the newly appointed chief of the Immigration Police, who took over this challenging role less than three months ago.
The irony of our work, says the 57-year-old Ashkelon native, is that the police are trained to deal with criminals and most of these illegal workers are not criminals.
"Their only crime is to be in the country illegally, and in the past our work ended up infringing on innocent people's basic rights," he says. "Because of that we had a lot of negative headlines, but we have learned now."
By learning, Mor means that his department of 382 officers has gone through a rigorous training process in an attempt to be more sensitive to a population of ordinary working-class people in search of a better life.
Among the steps taken by the unit is the establishment of a database of translators to help navigate the myriad of languages spoken by more than 90,000 illegal foreign workers, and a refocusing of its priorities away from midnight raids and other brutal tactics.
"We see a lot of social issues and now realize that in most cases, the worker has left his native country, his family and his culture to come here and make money to help his family back home," says Mor, who formerly headed the force's Lachish District. "Sadly, there are many people who take advantage of them, and that's what we have to focus on now."
To catch those who are behind this very lucrative business, Mor talks about establishing a National Immigration Authority, instituting biometric checks and tackling the current loopholes that allows this phenomenon to continue.
Is this really a job for the police?
"There is always the question of whether the police should be doing this kind of work, but in reality there is no other body in Israel that could take this on," he says. "In recent years we have sent our officers on many courses to help them understand what they are dealing with and to learn to be more sensitive.
"We have also regulated ourselves, so that, for example, we will not go into certain places such as old age homes, synagogues or schools. Our rules are very clear, that this population is essentially OK and we should not use force.
How do most illegal immigrants enter the country?
Apart from refugees from Sudan [who enter illegally via Israel's border with Egypt], most illegal immigrants enter through legal channels. The most common way to get in is on a B2 visa [given out at the airport or border crossings] and then just stay on even after the visa has expired.
How can this be stopped?
We are currently in a trial period of using biometric equipment to keep a database of fingerprints [of those illegal foreign workers who have already been detained or deported]. In many cases, the workers try to get back in the country with a fake passport after being deported once. This way we can stop them from returning.
"I also want to go after those who are initiating and abetting the problem. In the last two years, we have shifted our work. While at first we focused on finding the illegal workers, searching them out in the bus stations and other places, now we realize that if we focus on the instigators, we will be able to reduce this phenomenon.
Is that working?
In 2006, we indicted 285 employers using illegal workers, and in 2007 that number was increased to 564. As for the criminal proceedings brought against those who were arrested, this year there have already been 89 cases, compared to 75 in 2006.
Why are so few cases prosecuted by the courts?
I don't want to comment on the work of other bodies. I believe that everyone has their own job to do; mine is to detain the illegal workers and arrest the guilty employers.
But surely if the punishments are not harsh enough, the employ-ers will just continue to bring in foreign workers illegally?
Whether the courts are not judging them severely enough is not really my place to comment. However, I do believe there is too much overlap with the Interior, Labor, Trade and Industry, Finance, and Education ministries and the police all working on this in a different direction. It all needs to fall under one roof; if there was a National Immigration Authority, then it could follow up on whether the courts were not dealing harshly enough with those who are guilty.
There is a growing phenomenon of minors being brought in to work illegally, how does your unit deal with them?
There is a problem with children who are here illegally. We treat them as a different category to the adults and have separate programs to take care of them. There is a rehabilitation institute in Hadera that deals only with minors and we take this problem very seriously. The officers who work with the minors are specially trained to do so.
What about the issue of children of illegal immigrants, many of whom were born in Israel but do not have legal status?
The government's recent move helped to naturalize some of them, but there are still some who are here without status. As a rule, we do not detain children and we will not arrest the parents of these children either.
Surely illegal immigrants can use this fact as a "get out of jail free" card?
That is true, but that is the price one pays for democracy. In reality though, we do try to encourage those families to leave of their own free will so that we don't get to a point that we have to take harsher action.
What about those who have to be deported but cannot return to their countries?
I want to warn you that this excuse has become almost like a mantra. We have a special hearing committee that listens to each case and this is always the first excuse that they give.
We do have an international network that can check these facts and if it's a country without diplomatic relations, we go via the United Nations. We don't usually send people back into dangerous situations.