Government drops key residency bill

Legislation would have made it easier to expel non-Jewish foreigners.

About 450 school-age children of foreign workers who do not have residency permits breathed a bit easier on Wednesday, after the government agreed to withdraw a bill ordering their expulsion from Israel by law rather than by government decree. The government was due to present the bill for first reading on Wednesday, the Knesset's last day of work before the election recess. It reportedly backed down after former Meretz MK Amnon Rubinstein angrily protested the move, since the government had appointed him a few months earlier to head a committee charged with investigating Israel's policy regarding non-Jewish immigration and to recommend reforms. The government bill stipulates that anyone who arrived in Israel illegally or was currently living here illegally would have to leave the country for a predetermined amount of time before the government would consider his request to be allowed to come back and be granted residency rights. For example, the bill would force foreigners who entered the country illegally and later married Israelis to leave the country immediately. Israel would not consider their applications to return and receive legal status according to the family reunification procedure until the fixed amount of time, sometimes as much as five years, had passed. The bill would also convert into law a cabinet decision passed on June 26, which established stringent criteria for allowing the children of foreign workers currently living in Israel illegally to receive permanent residency. According to the cabinet conditions which were incorporated into the bill, the child's parents had to have entered Israel with a proper residency permit, the child had to have been born in Israel and be at least 10 years old, he must be learning in school or have finished his studies and must be fluent in Hebrew. Regarding children who met these criteria, their parents and siblings would also receive (temporary) residency permits. All children of foreign workers who did not meet every one of these criteria were to be expelled from Israel, along with their parents and siblings, as of January 1, 2006, according to the cabinet decision. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Hotline for Aid to Foreign Workers petitioned against the government decision, demanding that the government drop the conditions that the child had to have been born in Israel and that the parents had to have entered the country with a proper residency permit. The court has not yet ruled on their petition. In the meantime, however, it issued an interim injunction extending the expulsion deadline until March 31. It would be much more difficult, from a constitutional point of view, for the High Court to overturn the law than it would be to overturn a government decision. On Wednesday morning, Gila Ben-Arzi, who is in charge of the children of foreign workers studying at the Rogozin school in south Tel Aviv, where almost half the registered children of foreign workers study, was extremely concerned. She and other activists seeking to obtain permanent residency status for all the children of foreign workers in schools were relieved later in the day by the news that the government had dropped the bill from the Knesset agenda. It is likely that it will not come up again until after the new Knesset is elected. According to ACRI attorney Oded Feller, the law effects not only foreigners who entered Israel or are living here without a valid permit and the children of foreign workers who entered the country illegally, but also non-Jewish relatives of foreigners married to Israelis, including elderly parents and children from previous marriages, foreigners with children in Israel who have split up with their Israeli spouses, victims of female slavery, and Bedouins in southern Israel lacking residents' status.