CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that Rami Feinstein was an undocumented worker in the United States. Feinstein is in fact a U.S. citizen. The story has been amended to reflect this.
In 2006, aspiring Israeli singer Rami Feinstein faced a big-time dilemma: Would he sign a 19-year contract with a top talent agent and relinquish 45 percent of his future profits, or take a job selling cosmetics at an American shopping mall?
Feinstein took the job at the mall -- and it worked out better than he expected.
Not only did he make enough money to cut an album the following year, he found inspiration in the most unlikely of places. The sales pitch he used on clients at the Minnesota mall became the lyrics of “Something Amazing,” his first single.
“The song is about a bittersweet memory from that period,” Feinstein told JTA by phone from Tel Aviv. “As a musician I wanted to make music. But in order to do that I suddenly found myself having to sell cosmetics to American women at a shopping mall. That conflict gave birth to my song.”
Feinstein is an American citizen, but many if not most of the Israelis who find easy money selling brand-name cosmetics at mall kiosks across the United States are not. And not all of them enjoy Feinstein's fairy-tale ending.
Last month, 13 Israelis were arrested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up salespeople at two shopping malls in Houston. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has been working to stem the flow of illegal workers at the source, producing a video warning would-be Israeli kiosk salespeople that beside the ignominy of being jailed, they faced a potential lifetime ban on entering the United States if they are caught.
“It is true that thousands of Israelis have traveled over the past 10 years and worked at these kiosks," Charles Shannon, an embassy official, says in the video released in June 2011. “The difference is we know about it now.”
In the United States, talk of undocumented workers is more likely to conjure images of sun-parched Latino agricultural workers or nannies caring for the children of the affluent rather than pushy Israeli salespeople in air-conditioned emporiums hawking eye lotions and hand creams.
But increasingly, the flow of illegal Israeli workers is capturing the attention of American law enforcement, which treats them much as they treat any worker caught working illegally in the United States.
Even so, Israelis continue to flock to U.S. malls, judging the rewards to outweigh the risks.
“I earn more money in one month working at a shopping mall in the U.S. than I would in Israel in a year,” said Noa, who recently returned from a stint at a Texas mall and asked that her real name be withheld.
Noa, who spends the Christmas shopping season working at U.S. malls, says she can earn up to $8,000 in a good month -- nearly four times the average Israeli monthly salary. Of her many friends who have worked in the business, very few have been caught, she said. Some use the money to open businesses back home, while others used it to pay for trips to South America.
“You're standing at the cart all by yourself trying to communicate with people around you, but they're all saying 'no, no, no,' ” Feinstein said. “Just like an artist, you're constantly being rejected. But if you're strong and you have something interesting to offer, then eventually you'll be rewarded.”
After a few weak years, insiders say the kiosk business at malls is booming again. Kiosks are eager for new recruits, and recruiters typically offer to pay to transport potential employees to malls across the United States. Workers are housed communally; rent is generally free for the first month and then heavily subsidized.
Kiosk workers say they live and breathe salesmanship. Shifts are 12 hours long and they receive one day off per week. At night they laze around playing guitar, singing and exchanging stories about their top sales. First thing in the morning they're back at the kiosk.
The flow of illegal Israeli workers is seen as one reason for the failure of legislative attempts to exempt Israelis from having to obtain U.S. travel visas. A bill co-authored by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Tex.) would waive the requirement for Israelis to obtain a visa prior to traveling to the United States. But the bill is stuck because Israelis have a visa rejection rate of 5.9 percent. By law, visa requirements cannot be waived for citizens of countries with a rate above 3 percent.
Hoping to reduce the rate, Yigal Tsarfati, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's consular section in Jerusalem, recently took the unusual step of asking young Israelis not to apply for tourist visas to the United States.
“I would be happy if young adults would spare themselves the experience of waiting in line, paying high fees and the anguish of having their application rejected,” Tsarfati said, according to the daily Maariv. “By so doing they will contribute to efforts to reduce the number of those rejected.”
In 2009, Congress made an exception to the 3 percent rule for Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania, countries with higher rejection rates than Israel. Sherman said a similar exception could be made for Israel. He scoffed at the notion that doing so would open the floodgates to illegal Israeli immigrants.
“Proportionally, there are more illegal immigrants from Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and about 100 other countries I can get you than from Israel,” he said. “If you're in a Jewish environment, then you hear 'bubbe meises' [old wives' tales] about the Israeli illegal immigrants at the mall. But there are probably more illegal immigrants in the country from Canada and the UK. We can't shut down our relationship with them over that, can we?”