Workers' children granted residency

Olmert: Foreign worker issue was a "humanitarian problem of the first order."

foreign workers kids 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
foreign workers kids 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After years of discussions and half steps, the government approved a resolution Sunday to provide permanent-resident status to children of foreign workers who have lived here for at least six years, speak Hebrew and arrived before they were 14 years old. Up until now, the children have been living under the fear of deportation. The resolution passed by a vote of 18-5, with four Shas ministers and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni voting against it. Some 2,000 children of foreign workers are expected to be eligible for permanent resident status as a result of the cabinet decision. The proposal, which was put forward by Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, is the culmination of a long history of change surrounding the legal status of the children of foreign workers. Former interior minister Avraham Poraz first began to examine the problem in 2003, following a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in the Tel Aviv District Court for Administrative Affairs on behalf of four children of foreign workers who were refused official status. Although Poraz called for the granting of permanent residency to all children who had lived in Israel for at least 10 years and were attending high school or were high-school graduates, the government at that time blocked his efforts by establishing a special ministerial committee which would have the final word on such decisions. After Shinui resigned from the government and Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) took over the job, Poraz's proposal was rejected. Instead, in June 2005, the government decided to grant citizenship to children whose parents had entered the country legally, were at least 10 years old and had been born in Israel. Following petitioning by advocacy groups in the High Court, the court issued an interim injunction barring the state from deporting children until March 2006. The present resolution puts an end to the families' fear of deportation. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that this issue was a "humanitarian problem" of the first order, and that the country was obligated to treat the children of the foreign workers who consider Israel their home with "compassion." Olmert disputed the argument of the Shas ministers who warned that this would open the door to a phenomenon that could alter the character of the Jewish state, saying - in a reference to his realignment program - that he wished that these same ministers would take into consideration the Jewish nature of the state when voting on that plan. One of Olmert's arguments for a unilateral realignment in the West Bank is that it will ensure that the country retain a Jewish majority. Two human rights organizations, the Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which petitioned the High Court against a government resolution approved under Paz-Pines, praised Sunday's decision. "We welcome this humanitarian decision by the government to resolve the status of the children of the foreign workers living in Israel," the statement said. "In doing so, it has put an end to the torment and uncertainty with which these children, who are Israelis for all intents and purposes, were forced to live." Olmert said that the resolution approved Sunday does not cast a cloud over the Jewish character of the state. Rather, he said, objection to the plan cast a cloud over the "moral character" of the state. Livni took a different line of argument in the cabinet meeting, saying that the government had dealt with this issue in 2005, and there was no need to change what was already agreed upon. According to Sunday's resolution, requests to receive permanent residency must be submitted by August 31. The initiative applies only to children of workers who entered the country legally, although the interior minister could also provide permanent residency for children of parents who arrived illegally on the condition that the children have lived here for 10 years and studied in Israeli schools for three years. Children of foreign workers "have no other home," said Bar-On after the government's vote. "They were born here and are not here of their own choice. They speak Hebrew, celebrate Israeli holidays, attend youth groups and want to be drafted into the army." Bar-On noted that about 700 to 800 children would probably apply for the residency status. The law would also grant the children's parents permanent residency. "We won't separate children from their parents," he explained. Shas party chairman Eli Yishai called the law "the beginning of the end for the Jewish state" and a "cultural, economic and social bomb." "We are on a slippery slope with the loss of our identity at the bottom," he said, adding that his party "stood like a wall against the danger and prevented the initiative from reaching uncontrollable proportions." "In this astoundingly nonchalant decision, the government is adding more and more goyim [gentiles] who will undoubtedly affect the Jewish character of the state," said opposition MK Nissan Slomiansky of the National Union-National Religious Party. "In step with [policies of] human rights violations, the government expelled thousands of Jews from their homes. Now, in order not to hurt the rights of foreign workers' children, they're allowing them to build their homes in Israel. Is their blood more precious than the blood of the Gaza evacuees?" Others objected to the resolution on opposite grounds, claiming the law wasn't broad enough in its scope. Ghanaian Joel Mamah, who came to Israel 14 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv where he works as a cleaner, complained that his three-year-old daughter should be granted full Israeli citizenship status. "Since my daughter was born here, she should automatically be given the status of an Israeli citizen, not merely permanent residency," Mamah said. He added he would also like to remain in Israel if he was allowed to do so, but he was resigned to the fact that he would not be permitted to stay forever. Mamah complained about the inconsistency of the system, saying that in his daughter's preschool there were several foreign workers' children who had been given full Israeli citizenship while others, for no apparent reason, had not. Despite such criticism, Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, expressed joy at the decision. The Hotline has advocated formalizing the legal status of children of foreign workers for years and has fought for this in the media and through the courts. "I am so proud of them," she said of the children. "They learned a real lesson in citizenship. The truth is that they are so Israeli. They study democracy in school and have been given a chance to see democracy in action." Korzen has watched many of the children struggle through the legal obstacles to citizenship. Recently, the Hotline, in conjunction with a grassroots activist organization known as ActiveVision put together an art show to further call attention to the children's plight. The show featured photographs taken by 10 children who have grown up in Israel but had no legal status. The Hotline feared they would be deported at the end of June. Now, the children will be able to qualify for citizenship. "They are entitled to school, health care, and other civil rights," said Korzen. "More importantly, they can now to go to sleep at night and not be afraid of the police coming to deport them." Erika Snyder and Jonny Hadi contributed to this report.