Sunday, August 02, 2009

Refugees in Israel

Meant to post this before Shabbat but ran out of time....


Let the children stay


The prospect of the Jewish state expelling 2,800 children whose parents are foreign workers or illegal immigrants tugs at the heartstrings.

An authorized foreign worker who gives birth in this country loses her right to work here; illegal immigrants shouldn't be here in the first place. But the fact is that hundreds of their Hebrew-speaking children call Israel home. Interior Minister Eli Yishai would be doing the right thing to let them stay. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took a step in the right direction yesterday by delaying their expulsion for at least three months.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the system that brings over workers from abroad to do the jobs most of us do not want - home care for the elderly and infirm, back-breaking farm labor, or construction.

Until Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in 2000, the farm and construction jobs had gone mostly to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza. But that conflict forced Israel to turn to Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe to meet its labor needs.

Yet, from the get-go, potential foreign workers could not simply apply for, say, a four-year work visa at the Embassy of Israel closest to them. Instead, they were "imported" by licensed brokers - not a few of them rapacious and unscrupulous. There is money to be made in bringing foreigners to Israel, and the sooner one batch goes and another can be brought over, the more money the brokers make.

Most workers pay these middlemen a hefty fee for the opportunity to work here. That means many are in debt the moment they arrive. While in Israel, the foreigners are indentured to their employers by arcane rules, which provide them with little protection. Legal workers can't simply move to a different job, or to one with better conditions. If a caregiver's patient dies, the worker has few options, other than leaving the country, even if she or he only recently arrived. As the Post reported on Wednesday, the Interior Ministry inexplicably shut down a database through which workers with time remaining on their visas could learn about other openings. Thus, through no fault of their own, legal workers can suddenly find themselves illegal.

On Tuesday, two presumably legal Chinese workers held a protest atop a construction crane to object to their treatment. Next day, authorities arrested four brokers who had obtained work permits under false pretenses - ostensibly to provide caregivers for the blind, but in fact to meet needs for janitors and in construction (where new permits have been frozen).

We don't even know for sure how many illegals are in the country - estimates vary between 80,000 and 300,000. Authorities tried to keep most of them out of the main population centers, but under legal challenge reversed their "Hadera-Gedera" policy.

ADVOCATING against the children's deportation is easy. But we also support allowing foreigners who came here legally, and developed a strong attachment to this country, the opportunity to apply for resident alien status; thus providing them with the rights and obligations of citizenship, save for voting and military service. And we want to see their Israeli-born children become naturalized citizens in every sense.

We have less sympathy for those who came here illegally, or under false pretenses. After due process, and allowing for extenuating circumstances, we favor repatriating most illegal immigrants to their home countries.

As for those illegals, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are genuine (pending UN certification) asylum-seekers and cannot be deported under international law, we urge the UN to move speedily to help resettle these people in countries where their lives will not be in danger. Where appropriate, perhaps some of these refugees could be offered resident alien status.

We urge authorities: Rather than proceeding with a draconian Knesset bill that proposes treating illegal immigrants as if they were security infiltrators, invest your energies in building a security barrier along the Negev-Sinai border to keep both infiltrators and illegal aliens out.

Long-term, Israel needs to secure its borders, liberalize its naturalization procedures and, separately, revamp the way foreign workers reach our shores.

Tiny Israel cannot serve as a life-boat for millions of desperate refugees fleeing their poverty-stricken and war-torn countries. Yet it has a moral obligation to deal humanely - and with Jewish compassion - with those who are here, regardless of how they arrived.

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