Foreign workers' kids granted residency

"We have criteria that might be made more flexible," says MK Ruhama Avraham.

foreign workers kids 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
foreign workers kids 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Usually it's the parents who walk their children to school. But until Monday, it was 16-year-old Dennis Sarpong who had to walk his mother to work. An illegal foreign worker from Ghana, Vida Sarpong each day faced arrest by the police en route to the houses she cleans for a living. The police, though, don't arrest foreign workers with children, so her son played escort as she made her way to her employers' Tel Aviv homes. At a ceremony at the Interior Ministry Monday, Dennis Sarpong was granted permanent residency under new government guidelines giving status to children of foreign workers. As a result, Vida was also granted residency. "Now that she has documents, she can go alone," said Dennis, describing how his life had changed upon his family's receiving legal status. And instead of getting up for high school at 7 a.m., "now I can wait until 8 a.m." The lanky teenager can also now join the Tel Aviv-Maccabee youth basketball team that invited him to play earlier this year but couldn't accept him without an Israeli ID. And, perhaps most importantly, he said, "Now I feel equal with all my friends." Like the nine other children who received permanent residency Monday as a first step to citizenship - along with their parents and siblings who received temporary residency as a first step to permanent status - Dennis was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew and has Israeli friends. That acculturated background was a critical part of meeting the government guidelines, which have left hundreds of other children without status. Dennis smiled broadly while he had his picture taken with his new ID, but many of his peers were as dejected as ever. Dennis is among the first batch of an estimated 150 children who fit the government's guidelines, set in June after protracted debate, limiting status to those born in the country, whose parents arrived legally and who are at least ten years old. There are some 1,500-2,000 children of foreign workers in Israel under the age of ten, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, and another 350 above ten but failing other criteria. The hotline and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of the latter group. The court handed down a temporary injunction that will allow children and their families to stay in Israel at least until March. Hotline spokesman Romm Lewkowicz said he had "mixed feelings" watching the ceremony Monday. "The only meetings these families had had with the 'authorities' [before today] were during the night with police or in detention centers, so no doubt it's better to see them here being accepted," he said. "On the other hand, they're trying to create an image for the media as if the problems for the children of migrants have been solved, which is far from the truth... Most of the children in Israel don't fit the criteria." Even Ophir Paz-Pines, who was the Interior Minister until Labor resigned from the government in November, has called for the guidelines to be relaxed. He was the one who pushed the government to approve status for at least some of the children, but since leaving office has suggested the age limit be lowered to those over six. At the time of the decision, the Interior Ministry said the approved regulations would allow around 2,500 children to be eligible for status - many times more than the 200 or so who applied by the time Paz-Pines quit the ministry. "It was a very good decision that the government made," Paz-Pines said. "But I hope the government will be wise enough not to stick to this decision - which was based upon what seem to be mistaken numbers - but widen the criteria." "It's true that we have criteria that might be made more flexible in the future," acknowledged Deputy Interior Minister Ruhama Avraham of Kadima, who handed out the IDs Monday. But "previously, nobody could receive [status]. What's important is that we have started the process so they can receive [status]." Indeed, when Mary Amor Unkham spoke at the ceremony, she thanked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for "giving us the opportunity to really be Israeli." The 18-year-old, who has a Thai father and a Filipino mother, said she was looking forward to serving in the army and then pursuing a career in communications. In addition to fluent Hebrew, she speaks excellent English, since that was the only common language her parents knew. Afterwards, Unkham noted that she was worried about other children of foreign workers who hadn't received any status. "I'm concerned for the other families, and I'm hoping and praying for them," she said. But, she added, "I'm relieved first of all for us ten families here that are receiving ID cards." Just as Vida Sarpong is relieved that she doesn't have to worry about being arrested. "I was really afraid of them - the immigration police," she said, her son by her side.