I have to hand it to the immigration police, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the government – they’re clever. I honestly never believed they would deport hundreds of children of foreign workers who are here illegally – not because they didn’t want to, but because there would be too much of an international Jewish outcry, like there was last summer when the government okayed the plan. Certainly not after a documentary about foreign children in South Tel Aviv, “Strangers No More,” just won an Oscar.
I was wrong. The deportation of an estimated 400 to 600 children has begun. It’s happening now. And there is no international Jewish outcry, except from a few Israeli activists. Why? Because, like I said, the immigration police, Yishai and the government are clever. They’re not rounding up crying kids and their crying mothers and fathers en masse and marching them onto planes in full view of the media, which is the way I, in my stupidity, imagined it.
No, they’re doing it gradually, patiently, one or two at a time, quietly, out of sight of the cameras. If hundreds of kids and their parents were deported at once, or in large groups, it would be on CNN, Al Jazeera, Sky and everyplace else, not to mention all over the Israeli media. But if one infant is put on a plane with his mother, then another a few days later, then another a few days afterward, and more are continually arrested and put in the pipeline?
Big deal. It’s not much for news. Slowly, slowly, as we say in this country.
As of yesterday morning, three infants and their mothers – two from the Philippines and one from Nigeria – have been deported back to their home countries. Foreign workers have been coming here in large numbers for nearly 25 years, and this is the first time Israel has ever deported any of their children.
The three deported, as well as all or likely all of the other infants slated to go, were born in Israel, said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
The campaign started two weeks ago. The last mother and child flown out were a Filipina and her year-and-a-half-old daughter on Monday, said an Immigration Authority official.
“If you’re going to write down the details of each one, it’s going to take you a long time,” the official told me. “The Hebrew papers have already stopped writing about them. We’re going to remove these people, we’ve been saying so all along.”
Asked how many children and parents were awaiting deportation in the new holding cells set up at Ben-Gurion Airport, the official said, “I don’t know, and I don’t know that we’re going to give out that information.” During the interview, though, the official said “dozens” had been in the cells.
By law, they can be held up to 72 hours and are entitled to see an attorney. However, Rozen says nobody in the cells has been allowed a telephone call. “We only found out who’d been arrested when the people they know told us they were gone,” she said.
In the last two weeks, the only time an attorney has been to the cells came after a Turkish worker told the Hotline that his Filipina girlfriend and their 17-month old son were missing. The Hotline got the family a lawyer, who went to the airport, where the immigration police had to let her speak to her client. (The mother, Malo Cuatuazon, and her son, Kaan, were temporarily released by court order – the only deportees let out so far – because the father is seeking protection as a refugee. Chances are, however, that they will be deported in a matter of weeks.)
The immigration official insisted that all those arrested are offered the opportunity to see a lawyer. Asked about the claim that they’re not allowed to even make a telephone call, she said she didn’t know if this was true or not, but noted that she gave her own cell phone to one mother “to call her family in the Philippines.”
Very few people in Israel and seemingly no one abroad are aware of what’s happening. Right before the operation began, Yishai announced that he was postponing the deportation of school-age kids and their parents for a few months so as not to disrupt their education. Everyone cheered. The adorable, smiling face of Esther Aikpehae of South Africa, a “star” of the Oscar-winning documentary who’s become the poster child of the cause, was all over the media, and the public’s attention moved on.
What got overlooked, though, was Yishai’s pledge to start the deportation of children under three – the pre-schoolers – and their parents right away. It turns out he’s as good as his word. And when he says he means to start kicking out the school-age kids and their parents, too, in a few months, I’d believe him. When classes end and summer starts, expect 12-year-old Esther, her schoolmates and all the other kids of foreign workers who’ve overstayed their welcome to be flown back where they came from.
Not all at once, though. Slowly, slowly.
Nobody’s saying that all children of foreign workers should forever be allowed to stay here permanently with their parents, or that there should be a law granting automatic “birthright citizenship” to all children born here, as there is in the US and dozens of other countries. Israel is a very small place, but, because of its economy, it’s a huge magnet for poor people from the Third World. So we have to set limits.
But we don’t have to be rigid and stone-hearted. We don’t have to kick off a new immigration policy by deporting 400 to 600 kids and their parents. We can give them amnesty, we can “grandfather” them in on “humanitarian grounds,” as the ADL’s Abraham Foxman urged. If there’s suddenly a baby boom among foreign workers, we can see about applying the deportation law to children born ITAL after ITAL the law went into effect last July.
How many people are we talking about letting out of the net? Kids and parents, all told, about 1,000 to 1,500. (Many of the fathers aren’t around.) There are 300,000 foreign workers living in this country, about half of them here illegally; what difference one way or the other is 1,000 to 1,500 people, including kids, mainly Israeli-born kids?
Are they an existential threat to the Jewish state? Is this deportation anybody’s idea of Zionism?
When the cabinet made its decision to round up the children and parents and fly them out, Elie Wiesel said it was “hard to believe that such a thing is happening in Israel.”
It’s happening. If there was ever a time for an international Jewish outcry against an Israeli government policy, that time is now.