‘Let my people stay’

As 400 foreign worker's children are set be deported, ‘The Jerusalem Post’ looks at the growing effort to stop the government’s edict.

Foreign workers 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Foreign workers 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the less than three weeks since the government decided to deport an estimated 400 children of foreign workers, a national and international Jewish movement, from the grassroots to the leadership, has risen up against it. (Outside experts say the government is actually targeting as many as 1,000 children; see box.) By now, activists on behalf of migrant families clearly sense the wind at their backs, as the battle seems to pit “Eli Yishai vs the world,” as a Jerusalem Post headline put it.
The crowning blow came last weekend as Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, wrote a letter to the interior minister, who had pushed to deport all 1,200 migrant children in Israel yet accepted the compromise of 400.
“Dear Eli,” Netanyahu’s letter began, “I appeal to you as a mother of two young boys and a psychologist in the public service. I am asking you, from the bottom of my heart, to use the authority granted you by the government decision and allow the vast majority of the remaining 400 children to stay in Israel.”
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Before Sara Netanyahu, there was Elie Wiesel. “I find it hard to believe that such a thing is happening in Israel,” he told Haaretz.
“Where is the Jewish spirit, the Jewish heart, the Jewish compassion?” And while even many opponents of the decision deplore any comparison between the migrants and Holocaust refugees, the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, the umbrella group for 28 survivors’ organizations, made just that comparison.
“Those of us who survived the Holocaust witnessed the selection and separation of children from their parents,” the center said in a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who backed the government’s decision. “We, in particular,” the letter continued, “cannot see pictures of the unfortunate children who are not responsible for their own situation and be apathetic.”
For good measure, Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and the bestknown voice in America’s Israel lobby, said the 400 kids “should be ‘grandfathered in’ and permitted to stay on humanitarian grounds.”
In Israel, no national figure except Yishai is still fighting publicly for the deportation plan, which passed 13-10 with four abstentions on August 1, winning unanimous support from Shas and Israel Beiteinu, while splitting Likud and Labor. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, absent from the vote, said later, “The State of Israel must not deport hundreds of children. It is not Jewish, not humane and will scar all of Israeli society.”
During the tempestuous cabinet debate, Netanyahu said the decision struck a balance between “humanitarian considerations and Zionist considerations.” He also threatened to back Yishai’s plan to deport all 1,200 kids if the cabinet didn’t approve the deportations of the 400.
Now, however, the prime minister seems to have yielded the floor to his wife.
Even before Sara Netanyahu’s letter, Sigal Rozen, head of the Hotline for Migrant Workers and one of the veterans of the movement, said she didn’t believe the government would go through with the plan. “Personally, I look at the public’s attitude and I don’t see how they’re going to do it,” she said.
Other activists seem to be wary of such optimism.
“I’ve learned from experience to be pessimistic until something good happens. If the minister of interior is determined to kick them out, he will,” says Rotem Ilan, head of Israeli Children, which was founded a year ago to take up the migrant children’s cause. Yet she acknowledges that political reality does seem to be lining up with her hopes.
“I believe deep in my heart that it won’t happen, that the ministers and Knesset members won’t go through with it,” she says. “I’ve never seen an issue win support from such widespread parts of the population. When even the prime minister’s wife raises her voice, it shows how broad and how deep public sentiment is.”
With the estimated 300,000 migrant workers making up about 4 percent of the population, and half or more of them here illegally, there is an overwhelming national consensus that their numbers have to be brought under control.
But there is also a consensus that another 400 children, even with their parents, are not a threat to the country’s Jewish character or economy, and that the government’s move makes no sense from a humanitarian or hasbara perspective. Thus, Barak is proposing to grant amnesty to the 400, and to implement the government’s decision only in future cases of migrant children.
AFTER FUMING in the cabinet that “this isn’t the Jewish state I know,” Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer added, “This is not the time for the world to see the State of Israel deporting 400 children.”
On that latter point, even Eli Yishai might agree, if only privately.
The campaign against the government’s plan has gone beyond statements and demonstrations, the largest of which attracted upwards of 2,000 people last Friday to march to Tel Aviv’s Park Meir. At the rally, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon joined hundreds of other Israelis who’ve pledged to open their homes as hiding places for children slated to be deported. “I will hide them in my home, even if that means I’m breaking the law,” he told the fired-up crowd.
In its “Project Hospitality,” the organization Israeli Children has signed up some 250 Israeli families and 50 migrant families to take in kids if and when the deportation orders come through, says Ilan. Mindful, though, of Interior Ministry threats against the use of this tactic, she stresses that the organization’s plan is “to host, not hide” the children.
The Kibbutz Movement has also offered to house migrant children threatened with deportation.
“We’ll be ready to take them in tomorrow morning,” Yoel Marshack, head of the movement’s social activism arm, declared shortly after the government decision.
In Tel Aviv, artist Yigal Shtayim created a Facebook page titled “The group for sheltering the families of 400 children to be deported from Israel.” By this Sunday, a week after the page went up, it had attracted 1,843 responses.
“I’ve gotten offers to take in kids from Holocaust survivors, from children of survivors, from grandchildren of survivors like myself,” says Shtayim in his studio. “I got messages from people who run bed-and-breakfasts and say they have an empty bungalow, from moshavniks who have an extra room, from families in cities and suburbs who are willing to let the children stay in their security room.
“People are shocked,” says Shtayim, adding: “It’s very Jewish to identify with the suffering of immigrants.”
Yishai, however, has no tolerance for this.
After the Green Party of Givatayim offered families threatened with deportation “help in finding a hiding place until this disgrace visited on us by the interior minister is removed,” the minister’s spokesman said the Greens’ announcement had been “relayed to legal authorities...”
However, until any of the children are officially wanted for arrest, it’s difficult to see how simply letting them sleep in one’s home, or advocating such a gesture, would be a crime.
After the government decision, the Tel Aviv offices of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, of Mesila, the municipality’s aid agency for foreign workers and asylum-seekers, and of Physicians for Human Rights, all filled up with migrant families seeking urgent help. In the yard of Mesila, near the central bus station – the nerve center of Israel’s foreign population – black kids from Africa and brown kids from Asia ran around jabbering in Hebrew. Inside, their parents waited to talk to one of the many volunteer counselors who’ve been turning up lately.
“Gloria,” a Philippines woman, knows that her son, “Roy,” stands to be deported because at age five, he’s only registered for kindergarten next year, not first grade as the criteria require.
In other words, he’s a year too young to stay in the country. Although there’s a possibility the Interior Ministry would refer Roy’s case to the interministerial committee that will be considering “borderline cases,” Gloria, on the advice of Mesila counselors, isn’t going to risk it.
“They told me to prepare my documents, but not to go to the Interior Ministry. Who knows? After a while, maybe they’ll change the law,” she says.
In the meantime, Gloria says she’s going to continue showing up for work as a housecleaner and living in the nearby one-bedroom apartment that she and Roy rent with three other Filipina women. Some of her friends, however, are giving up.
“I have a lot of friends here with children who are around three years old, too young to meet the criteria, and they’re really feeling low,” she says. “Some are already packing their bags to go home, sending their valuables back to the Philippines.”
AT THE HOTLINE’S offices in midtown Tel Aviv, amid a similar flurry of foreigners and counselors, “Sonya,” whose daughter “Tatyana” finished high school two years ago – and is thus two years too old for permanent residency – is taking the chance that the girl will get in as a borderline case. “We’re going to the Interior Ministry at the beginning of next week,” says Sonya, photocopying her documents with the help of an elderly volunteer.
A housecleaner living in a West Bank settlement, Sonya says she “always wanted to go all the way, to try to get legal residency, because the way it is, we can’t get anywhere. My employers cheat me out of benefits and say I’m not entitled because I’m illegal. Tatyana gets jobs as a store clerk, but after a couple of months they ask for a work permit and she doesn’t have one, so they let her go. She was a very good student and she wants to go to college, so we have no choice – we have to try.”
The pressure on migrants has produced some highly charged scenes. Says Tamar Schwartz, director of Mesila: “There was this one woman from Ghana in our offices, and I saw that she was standing off to the side crying, and I asked what was wrong and she said, ‘Nothing,’ but then I called her inside, closed the door, and she told me – she had AIDS, and she was afraid she and her child would be deported even though the child met all the criteria. I told her, ‘What are you talking about? Just the opposite – now you’re finally going to be able to get health insurance and good care.’” On another occasion, says Schwartz, a sixyear- old boy from Ivory Coast went missing at Mesila. “Twenty police drove all over the area until they found the boy at about one in the morning. A father from Ghana with a fouryear- old child – too young for the criteria – took the older boy home, evidently hoping to pass him off as his own,” says Schwartz, explaining that if the kidnapped boy were to get permanent residency, the Ghanaian father and his underage son would be eligible for temporary residency.
“The father from Ghana told police he only brought the boy home to give him some candy,” she notes.
The Interior Ministry’s office in Tel Aviv is on the second floor of the government building across from Azrieli Towers. On Thursday of last week, kids of various nationalities were sliding noisily along the floor on flattened pastry cartons left out by a café. The ministry was manning five counters to accept people’s documents, but the migrants were still sitting and waiting for hours. At around 3 p.m., on this fifth day of operations, a ministry official called for the day’s 162nd applicant family to bring their papers to the window.
The migrants in the office looked bored, not worried.
“With very few exceptions, everybody who’s been here today meets the criteria,” explained a young Hotline volunteer advising a grateful Ghanaian woman.
Beginning next month, the Interior Ministry says it will begin deporting children whose families do not take them out of the country.
That will be an interesting challenge. In a Haaretz column urging Israelis to shelter these kids, Yossi Sarid wrote: “Let the representatives of the law look for them in the attic, in the basement, in the closets, under the beds; let the authorities tear them from your arms.”
In another sign of the depth and breadth of opposition to the government’s policy, Itzik Peri, head of the Social Workers Union, called on social workers to refuse to cooperate with child deportations, which would make it even harder and more embarrassing for immigration police to carry out such orders.
But even if they do, migrants whose children are slated for deportation will still be able to appeal to the Supreme Court, as they often do with the aid of human rights lawyers. In practice, deporting hundreds of children will take years – another reason why many activists believe the policy will never be carried out. A good illustration is Rabbi Eliezer Cruz, a colorfully named 12-year-old boy who lives with his Filipino parents, Christopher and Lorna, in South Tel Aviv.
They were the first family to seek residency status after the government, in 2006, made its initial attempt at systematically deporting migrant children in the hope of dissuading guest workers from settling down.
“We were turned down by the Interior Ministry, we had deportation orders against us,” says Christopher, who, like his wife, came to Israel as a caregiver in the mid-’90s. “But then we went to family court, to district court in Jerusalem, then to the Supreme Court. We had to get documents from the Philippines. We’re still going to court.” Four years later, the deportation orders are still being held up. Nevertheless, he estimates he’s been arrested and released by immigration police a half-dozen times.
“Once, on a Sunday morning at about six, they knocked on our door, woke us up and came in,” he adds.
Little statues of Jesus stand in the Cruzes’ living room. “We chose the name ‘Rabbi Eliezer’ from the Bible,” says Christopher. Asked what he wants to be if he’s allowed to stay in the country, Rabbi Eliezer, who plays guitar and organ, says, “Either a pilot or a musician.” Asked what he’ll do if he’s deported, the boy replies in what sounds rehearsed. “I’ll be very sad, but I’ll try to get used to it,” he says. “I don’t have any other country, this is the only country I know.”
That was the middle of last week. The following morning, the Cruzes brought their documents to the Interior Ministry office.
“They said they’ll call us very soon for an interview,” says Christopher. “I think we meet the criteria now.”
“Everything was okay,” adds Lorna.
“It wasn’t like before. This time they were very friendly, they didn’t give us any problems,” says Christopher.
“We felt like we were home.”