Israel’s ‘illegal’ children

Posted by admin on Jul 17th, 2010

By Mya Guarnieri, Al Jazeera, Saturday, July 17, 2010

For most children summer is a carefree time. But for the children of Israel’s undocumented migrant workers, deportation looms on the horizon. It has been a hotly contested issue since last July, when the Oz Unit, a strong arm of the interior ministry’s population and immigration authority, first hit the streets. As the state took aim at Israel’s 250,000 illegal labourers, 1,200 children were marked for expulsion along with their parents. The move, a sudden reversal of Israel’s long-standing policy against deporting minors, sparked public outrage. Protests and media scrutiny delayed the deportations but only temporarily.

In October, Eli Yishai, the interior minister, indicated that the families would indeed be expelled. The following month, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, announced that the children would be allowed to finish the school year.

Roei Lachmanovich, a spokesman for Yishai, commented: “The government’s decision is that Israel should minimise the number of foreign workers in Israel. It is nothing against those 1,200 children – the decision is against the illegal workers who think getting pregnant gives them permission to stay here.”

“There’s a way that these parents use the children,” Lachmanovich added, accusing the mothers of hiding behind their children to avoid deportation.

Forbidden relationships

But, in fact, many of the women became illegal simply because they gave birth in Israel.

State policy forbids migrant workers from having children in the country. If a woman does, she must send her newborn home. If she keeps her baby in Israel, she loses her work visa.

Romantic relationships are also forbidden for foreign workers. In June, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on the story of Charlene Ramos, a Filipina caregiver with employment and a valid work visa, who faces deportation because she married another migrant labourer.

Hanna Zohar, the director of Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO that advocates for workers’ rights, says: “Israel decided to bring migrant workers. But they are not only workers, they are human beings.”

Labourers should not be punished for falling in love or having babies, Zohar argues. Nor should they be expelled for it.

“Deporting children and their family is not humane,” she says.

‘Israel, my home’

Both politicians and the public seem to agree. In late May, some 8,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to rally against the deportation.

Organised by UNICEF Israel, Israel’s National Student Union, and Israeli Children – a grassroots movement founded specifically to advocate for the 1,200 children – the protest was held under the banner “We don’t have another country”, a play on the title of a patriotic song known to most Israelis.
There have been protests against the deportations [Mya Guarnieri]

A pair of Jewish Israeli teenagers in Scouts’ uniforms raised signs reading “Let my children stay.”

Two young Filipina girls held an emotional appeal, handwritten in Hebrew: “Israel is my home. Here I learned to read Hebrew. All my friends are here. I am an Israeli child.”

A screen displayed pre-recorded messages from dozens of politicians who support the children. When the video ended, several knesset members (MKs) took to the stage to address the crowd.

MK Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the left-leaning Meretz party, was amongst them.

“We’re not going to let anyone deport them,” Horowitz said, adding that giving the children permission to stay in Israel “is not enough”.

They must be recognised as citizens of the state as well, he said, adding that “we are all Israeli children”.

His comments get to the heart of the debate – are these children, born to non-Jewish parents, Israeli?

Advocates say yes, citing the fact that they attend local schools, speak fluent Hebrew, and celebrate the Jewish holidays.

“They are absorbed into Israeli society,” says Rotem Ilan, the co-founder of Israeli Children. “They go to Scouts. They go to [Zionist] youth movements.”

“They don’t even speak Tagalog,” she adds.

A majority of the children face deportation to the Philippines, a place most have never seen.

Assimilation is not the only argument offered by the children’s supporters. Some point to Jewish religious texts that prohibit the mistreatment of foreigners. Others say that the persecution suffered during the Holocaust bequeathed Jews with a unique responsibility to protect other minority groups.

But Yishai, head of the conservative Shas Party popular with Orthodox Jewish Israelis, has spent the past year defending his decision to expel the children. He calls the children a threat to the Jewish character of the state. He has also remarked that migrant workers bring a “profusion of diseases” to the country.

Speaking to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, Horowitz called Yishai “an archaic racist”.

In May, a governmental committee sided with the children, recommending naturalisation for 800 of them. But their decision was not final and must be ratified by Yishai.

Local media has reported that Yishai will allow only those entering first grade to remain in Israel. Critics including Ilan point out that this would leave a second grader, or a teenager who has spent his or her entire life in Israel, subject to deportation.

While Yishai denies these reports, he has yet to say what the final answer will be.

Awaiting fate

As the debate rages on, families wait for word of their fate.

“I get dozens of phone calls every day from mothers,” Ilan says, explaining that parents are confused and frightened by conflicting information.

“The mothers don’t know if they should register their children for summer activities. Are they supposed to act regular? Are they supposed to hide?” We need to think about what this does to the children. We’re playing with their life.”

Michelle Trinanis, 14, is amongst those who face expulsion. Born and raised in Israel, she has never visited the Philippines and does not speak Tagalog. In fluent Hebrew, she rhetorically asks: “Why should I have to start again?”

Reflecting on the deportation, Trinanis compares the move to being treated like sheep. “It’s not okay,” she says.

Trinanis prays every day that the government will allow her and her family to stay. As she waits for an answer, she finds acceptance and comfort in the community.

Several days ago, a friend started a Facebook group in the hope of preventing Trinanis’ deportation. More than a hundred strangers have already joined, sending messages of support.

For now, she prefers uncertainty to a no. “I feel like it’s good not to know. If I knew more, I’d be scared to go outside,” she says. “I’d be stuck in the house.”

Despite the fact that the government has not announced a final decision, families face harassment from the immigration police and some couples are keeping their children indoors.

But for the Trinanis family, life goes on as the parents try to give their children a sense of normalcy.

Judith Trinanis, Michelle’s mother, says: “I want them to feel free.”

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