The white, unmarked Immigration Police van stopped at a busy intersection in Herzliya Pituah where Filipinos, Indians, Chinese and other foreign workers were passing through. "Everybody's seen us, they're all gonna scatter now," said Amnon Lavie, one of the three plainclothes policemen - or "inspectors," as they're called - getting out of the van.
He went up to a pair of Chinese construction workers sitting on the grass.
"Immigration Police - can I see your passports?" he asked.
"At home," they said in their meager Hebrew, smiling frantically in a bad attempt to convince Lavie they had nothing to hide.
Down the block, Maxim Kazatzker, another inspector, stopped an African man and asked for his passport.
"Shukran," Kazatzker told him, using the Arabic for "thank you" - then, seeing he was a Darfur refugee living here legally, said, "Salaam aleikum," gave him his passport back and let him go.
The two Chinese men were told to lock their bikes to a lamppost.
"Those bikes are stolen," Lavie told me, pointing to where the ID numbers had been painted over, but he couldn't say whether the men had stolen them or bought them "hot," as foreign workers commonly do.
The Chinese men, in their 30s, were told to sit in the back of the van. With them were Lavie, Kazatzker, team leader Gilad Revivo, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad and me. Haddad pulled out a bag of chips and passed it around, to the Chinese guys as well. We were all chewing away, driving to the men's flat to see if their work visas had expired. If they had, the men would very likely be on a plane back to China in a day or two.
Inside the flat, the walls and appliances were incredibly grimy, the floors piled with mattresses, clothing and all sorts of personal belongings. The Chinese workers pulled their passports out of a plastic bag. Imitating their pidgin Hebrew/English to try to make himself understood, Revivo asked why they'd left their documents at home.
"They steal," said one.
"Ali Baba?" asked Revivo.
"Yeah, Ali Baba," the man nodded.
Revivo told me "Ali Baba" was the term foreign workers used for Arab street thieves.
The Chinese men's visas were good for another couple of years; they were safe. For my benefit, Revivo asked one of the men about himself. He said he was 34 and made $1,300 a month for about a 60-hour work week, but that the rent was free, paid for by his employer. After work he waits at the curb for Israelis to hire him for odd jobs. He sends most of his pay home to China.
"I have a wife and two children," he said.
"I thought you're only supposed to have one," Revivo said to him, and they laughed.
Walking behind the two men back to the van, Revivo told me, "Their employer tells them the rent is free, but I can guarantee you he's taking it off their salary. I don't know any Israeli freierim [suckers]," he said.
Dropping the two men off at the corner where they'd locked their bikes, we smiled and waved good-bye, and they smiled and waved back.
"Good luck," called out Haddad, and Revivo drove on through Herzliya Pituah, Ra'anana, Holon and Tel Aviv to continue looking for "illegals" to arrest.
The Immigration Police, known in this latest reorganization as the "Oz unit," has about 200 inspectors nationwide.
"We all have military experience," said Lavie - bearded, wearing a black kippa, in his mid-30s. Before starting this job, he said he'd been in a succession of small businesses.
Kazatzker, in his mid-20s, had worked at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Revivo, nearing 30, owned a moving business in New York for several years before returning to Israel and, seeing that the economy was bad, taking the job with the Oz unit.
"I thought I'd just be a cop riding around, not doing much, but I've entered a whole new world I didn't know existed," Revivo said. Sometimes he doesn't get home until 3 a.m.
LAUNCHED WITH great publicity on July 1 to crack down on illegal immigration, the Oz unit - "oz" being a Hebrew word for "strength" - means tough law enforcement to Israelis. To foreigners, of course, it means persecution. The unit's job is to bust as many of the country's 250,000 illegal foreign workers (by the Interior Ministry's estimate) as possible, then drive them back to headquarters in the Holon industrial zone, where they are processed for speedy deportation. After the unit started out, Interior Minister Eli Yishai promised "a mass deportation." In the three months the unit has been operating, 477 illegals have been sent home.
Of the three inspectors with whom I was riding, Kazatzker - with his bulging muscles, dark sunglasses, short-cropped hair and beard and aggressive stance - was the only one who had an intimidating presence, and even he wasn't so bad when he was questioning people. Lavie came across much more warmly, but, like Kazatzker, had an intensity about him and was endlessly suspicious. Revivo was the most easygoing, and also the most empathetic.
I traveled around with the trio (and Haddad) for an eight-hour shift, talking, laughing, eating sandwiches, walking the streets. Not only didn't I see any brutality toward the 100-plus foreign workers they questioned, I didn't even see anything approaching impoliteness. Obviously the inspectors were on good behavior in front of a journalist, but my impression was that they were decent men, fully aware that the foreigners they were pursuing weren't murderers, rapists or thieves, but just people trying to work their way out of poverty.
Revivo, Lavie and Kazatzker struck me as regular, down-to-earth guys with a rotten job. The thing is, they want to be good at this job. For all their decency, they are determined to put as many illegals as possible en route to Ben-Gurion Airport.
There is the rare exception. Revivo told of the time he stopped a Filipino woman in Ramat Hasharon who'd been in Israel for 13 years, and who told him she had a daughter in nursery school. "Visa babies," they're called around the Interior Ministry, because a foreign worker with a child will not be deported (though Yishai is making progress on changing that, a fact that became clear toward the end of the shift).
"I phoned the nursery school and asked if they knew if this woman was the little girl's mother, and they said they didn't," Revivo recalled. "We go to the nursery school, and the little girl is brought out, she's six years old, and she starts crying, 'Mommy, mommy,' and then she grabs onto my leg and starts pleading with me not to take her Mommy away. I had tears in my eyes. This other guy I was working with, a tough guy, he had tears in his eyes, too.
"Now was this woman really the little girl's mother? Probably not. It was probably rehearsed. But what am I going to do? I called my supervisor. He told me the hell with it, to let it go."
At first, the Oz unit was also supposed to arrest African asylum-seekers - mainly Eritreans and Sudanese who came across the border from Egypt - whom they spotted in the Center of the country and who were thus violating the law restricting them to the area north of Hadera or south of Gedera. But after Oz inspectors busted about 250 of them in one night around Tel Aviv, Yishai decided to lay off the asylum-seekers, or "infiltrators," as they're often called, and allow them to stay wherever they wanted. The Hadera-Gedera plan had caused "social and economic problems" in the towns of the periphery, explained Yishai.
Now that the Hadera-Gedera policy has been scrapped, African asylum-seekers are returning to the Center, especially around the Tel Aviv central bus station, capital of Israel's foreign population.
"Now when we see guys from Sudan and Eritrea, all we can say is 'Shalom,'" said Revivo (though as Kazatzker's questioning of the Darfur man in Herzliya Pituah showed, that's not entirely accurate). "This takes a lot of work off our hands, but it also causes a balagan [mess]. Now they feel free to razz us a little when they see us walk by because they know we can't do anything.
"Look at them," he continued, driving through the Tel Aviv central bus station area past Lewinsky Park, where African men sat in groups on the grass. "You see a lot of humanitarian cases out there, people with all sorts of diseases, with open sores on their faces, with excrement in their pants. It's not pretty."
Revivo can be moved to tears by a hard-luck immigrant, but he also considers his job to be shlihut, a public service. This duality - a sympathy for the foreigners together with a conviction that there are too many here for Israel's own good - ran through the inspectors' talk about their work.
I WENT FOR a walk with Lavie through the streets around the bus station. He stopped several foreigners, mainly Filipinos, asking to see their passports and the work visas stamped inside. In every case, the visas were still good.
"In the course of a shift, we'll check maybe 150 people. On an average day we'll arrest about two or three illegals," he said.
While questioning suspects - and everybody who was black or Asian or otherwise not "Israeli-looking" was a suspect - Lavie always smiled and spoke in a friendly way. The foreigners seemed mildly or not-so-mildly irritated; they go through this all the time.
"Sure, you want to see my visa, here it is. You want to come to my house, come on," said one exasperated Filipino woman who, like nearly all the rest of her countrymen here, provides home care for some aged or handicapped Israeli.
"They go to work, they come home, and they have to show their passports to people in authority - it's an insult for them," said Lavie. "You have to treat them with sensitivity. This is one of the reasons they wanted people a little older in the Oz unit - they didn't want people just out of the army."
However, Lavie sees the populace around the bus station as a demographic and social problem.
"There are no Israelis here except for a few hangers-on who are too old or poor to leave, and they don't like living next to 10, 12 people crowded into an apartment, having parties all night," he said.
I mentioned that the foreign workers were brought here by Israeli employers, and he said those who were here legally were "welcome, but not the ones who violate the terms of their visas. There are hundreds of thousands of them in the country now."
He noted that the area around the bus station was riddled with crime - drug-dealing, theft, robbery, prostitution. The Chinese are known for their extortion rings that victimize other Chinese workers, but Lavie added, "You'll find criminals among all sorts of nationalities around here."
Yet when I suggested that the ranks of criminals in the bus station area were also filled with Israelis, he agreed.
He said he and others in the Oz unit were convinced that "most of the public identifies with what we're doing and thinks it's important. You hear it, you see it on the blogs and Internet forums."
On his cellphone he showed me some graffiti he'd photographed while on patrol.
"The black Muslims on motorcycles are al-Qaida agents," read one. "Why are Sudanese 'refugees' allowed in? They're all pregnant," read another.
Walking through this international enclave, we saw that on the side of a building, someone had stenciled the words "Don't deport me!" under the figure of a boy in a cap with his hands raised, like in the famous Holocaust photograph. Only someone had painted over the word "don't."
Revivo was waiting for us back in the van.
"I went to see a woman I know, a Filipino who's been living here for 18 years," he said. I asked if he'd checked her papers.
"No, she's got resident's status, she's legal. No, just to say hello," he said. "There are nice people around here."
The import of foreign workers from poor countries began in 1988 with the first intifada, when Israel could no longer depend on Palestinians to do its cheap, menial labor. Preferring economic conditions here to those at home, many overstayed their work visas, while others came in on tourist visas and found jobs.
Today the country's construction industry depends on Chinese, Eastern European and Turkish laborers, the farms depend on Thai workers, and the aged and handicapped depend on Filipino, Indian and Nepalese caregivers. Foreigners from all over also work here in restaurants, nurseries, car washes, homes and any number of other sites.
As the foreign worker population grew and established itself around the central bus station and other poor, south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, politicians began promising to turn the tide and force unemployed Israelis to take the foreigners' places. It never happened. Israelis didn't want to do this "black work," employers preferred the easily exploited foreigners on their payroll, and Israeli labor contractors, who work hand-in-hand with labor contractors overseas, have gotten too rich off this wide-open, frequently lawless business.
Thus, despite countless declarations, laws and crackdowns, the foreign worker population has continued to grow.
ON A SIDE street near the bus station, we clambered down into the construction site of a house being fully remodeled. Three foreign workers pretended not to notice us and kept banging away with their hammers.
"This is the fourth time you've been here in the last week and a half! Enough is enough," complained the Israeli contractor.
After getting the workmen to stop hammering, Revivo and Lavie began checking their visas. The workers were from Turkey. Revivo asked one how he'd gotten here. In primitive Hebrew and English, the Turk said he'd made his way to Egypt, where he'd paid Beduin $3,000 to smuggle him across the border.
"You got ripped off," Revivo told him good-naturedly.
I was surprised they paid so much for the privilege of being construction workers in Israel, and Revivo told me this was nothing to what the Chinese had to pay.
"On average, it costs the Chinese $15,000 to get a job here, and they don't have that kind of money - they borrow it from these Chinese syndicates, like the mafia. And they leave their families as collateral," he said.
A Chinese construction worker gets a visa in Israel for five years, and it usually takes him the first two years to pay off the loan, Revivo continued. The wages are low because the laborer is only allowed to work for the employer authorized to import him, which means he has no bargaining power. But if he "flees" his employer and sells his labor on the black market to another, unauthorized employer, he can demand a much higher wage. Then, of course, he's breaking the terms of his visa, which makes him an "illegal" - and fair game for the Oz unit.
"If they get deported back to China after they've paid off the loan, all they lose is their job," Revivo said. "But if they get deported before they've paid off their loan? They themselves say they're better off dead. The syndicate punishes their families. Men can get killed, girls can get forced into prostitution."
At the construction site, one of the Turkish workers didn't have his passport on him, saying it was with his brother. Lavie told him politely to get in the van. Revivo, however, checked the man's papers and saw he had a date for a hearing with the UN, which shielded him from arrest.
"Shalom," said Revivo, and we drove off, leaving the Turkish workers and their Israeli contractor until the Oz unit's next visit.
Around sundown we drove back to Herzliya Pituah. Cruising the streets, the three inspectors checked the papers of a Chinese sushi chef, a pair of Filipino caregivers, a half-dozen or so Indian housekeepers and even a Russian immigrant. Questioning the Filipino women, Kazatzker thought he was hitting "two birds with one stone," but they turned out to be legal. One woman thought Haddad was also Filipino and was informing on her, which got us all laughing.
The sushi chef seemed calm at first, but the longer the inspectors were on the phone to the Interior Ministry and the more intent their expressions became, the more worried the chef looked, until they finally let him go.
A young Indian housekeeper had left her passport in her employer's home, and the employer was out and she didn't have the key. Calling a coworker to bring it, she was distraught, almost moaning as she tried to explain the situation to the inspectors.
"She's under pressure; there are probably other foreign workers living with her, she doesn't want to lead us to them," Lavie told me.
Finally the coworker brought the passport. Checking it, Lavie told the young woman, "Everything's okay. But from now on, carry your passport with you wherever you go."
After checking the papers of a woman from the former Soviet Union, then letting her go, Lavie told me he'd decided to question this woman after she'd stopped in her tracks, visibly frightened at his approach.
"Her reaction was enough to make her suspicious," he explained. This seemed to be one of Lavie's and Kazatzker's working assumptions - that people who showed fear likely had something to hide. It didn't seem to occur to them that "legal" foreigners might also show fear in the face of the Immigration Police.
We drove to an address in Ra'anana where an illegal Chinese construction worker usually returned home at 8 p.m., according to the Oz unit's information. Lavie, Kazatzker and Haddad went to the apartment building to wait for the man; Revivo and I drove off for a Coke.
Sitting in the parked van, he talked about how the unit was trained to "be humane. We treat people with respect. And even if I arrest somebody and he's going to be deported, it's not personal. Five minutes later, we can be friends. They're just here to make a living. If I was in their shoes, I'd do the same thing, and I'd do everything they're doing and more to avoid getting arrested.
"When I was in New York," Revivo continued, recalling his time as a mover, "I knew a lot of Israelis who were there illegally, who were afraid of the American immigration police, and believe me, those guys show no leniency, no compassion like we do. Once I was driving a truck with an Israeli friend, an illegal immigrant, who hid under a blanket in the back when we pulled into the weigh station. I remember how scared he was, and how relieved he was when we got through. So I can identify with these people here; I know what they're going through. I've been on the other side.
"To tell the truth," he said, "I don't feel as bad arresting, say, a Filipino or somebody who's just going to lose his job, as I do when I arrest some of these Chinese guys."
I asked if he'd ever arrested a Chinese worker who hadn't finished paying off his loan to the syndicate.
"Yes, I'm telling you, I have," he replied. "I caught this one guy and he's pleading with me, 'I China, I China,' and he made as if to slit his throat. I know the story. After I put him in the van he tried to escape, and when somebody tries to escape, you don't care about his problems, you don't care about anything, you just go catch him. After I caught him and I'm driving him in, he took this wad of bills out of his pocket and tried to give it to me - to bribe me to let him go - and I just pushed it back to him. I told him, 'You keep it, you're going to need it more than me.'"
For a moment, the team leader was quiet. Then, looking straight ahead, he said, "But I figure it's better if I do this job than a regular policeman, because they'll just put these guys away without a word. At least I can do it in a humane way.
"I don't have anything against the foreign workers. I don't like kicking them out of the country," Revivo said. "But if we don't stop what's going on now, who knows where it will end? There are hundreds of thousands of them now, in a few years there'll be a million. So I feel that what I'm doing is shlihut. It serves the country.
"You know," he added, laughing lightly, "Herzl didn't want Uganda, but now Uganda is coming to us."
Pausing again, he concluded, "Everybody has his job to do. The bottom line is that we don't make the policy."
AFTER AN hour waiting in Ra'anana for the Chinese worker, the inspectors gave up and drove back to the Tel Aviv bus station area for one last sweep. The streets were lit up and crowded. Kazatzker and Lavie went out and began stopping one foreigner after another to check their papers. Revivo and Haddad waited in the van, telling stories to pass the time.
"Whenever I went to his apartment he'd give me this line, he'd pretend he didn't understand what I was saying, but I knew, I knew, and finally he told me the truth. He spoke perfect Hebrew," said Revivo. "What a character."
"What happened to him?" Haddad asked.
"He got on a plane," said Revivo.
The team leader began talking about a bust of three Filipino illegals who'd worked at an old-age home. The Oz unit doesn't go into old-age homes to question foreign workers randomly, but in this case they had been tipped off by an Israeli whose wife worked there.
"We get a lot of information from Israelis," said Revivo.
I asked why an Israeli would inform on illegal foreign workers.
"Why? Because he wants to," Revivo shrugged. "Everyone has their reasons. Maybe these people were bothering his wife at work."
After an hour, Lavie and Kazatzker came back to the van. They'd questioned about 15 people but found no illegals and made no arrests. In fact, there had been no arrests all day. But the inspectors didn't seem put out by this.
"We don't have any quota, and we're not in competition with anybody," said Revivo.
On the way back to Holon, Haddad was on the phone with reporters. There was a good photo op, she said, with an illegal South American worker they had nicknamed "Jesus," because that's who he looked like and because he'd found God in Israel and been walking up and down the country until it was decided to deport him.
"He's getting on a plane tonight," she told the reporters.
After getting a call from the Interior Ministry, she put out a message to reporters about a hopeful new political development - the Finance Ministry was now backing Yishai's plan to deport some 1,300 children of illegal foreign workers, along with their parents. It appeared the days of the "visa baby" were numbered.
At about 10:30 p.m. we got back to the Oz unit's headquarters in Holon. An Asian man and woman were sitting inside with their bags at their feet. An official told the three inspectors they might have to accompany some illegals to Ben-Gurion Airport for deportation. In the end, though, somebody else was given the job.
Revivo, Lavie and Kazatzker had had another eventful day at work, but it was late and they were tired. They were glad to be able to go home and sleep.â€¢