- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TEL AVIV | Israel will begin deporting families of illegal migrants in coming weeks, officials say, as an emotional debate rages over the ballooning numbers of foreign workers that some fear could threaten the country’s Jewish identity.

A decade ago, Israel began bringing in foreign workers in an effort to reduce its dependence on cheap Palestinian laborers. Now tens of thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa who entered the country legally but have overstayed their visas have developed strong ties to Israel and have no intention of returning home.

How to deal with the migrants hits on two of the most charged issues in Israel. On one hand, the fear is that the migrnats’ growing numbers will dilute Israel’s Jewish majority, while others warn that deporting them from a country born partly as a refuge for Jewish victims of the Holocaust is immoral.

But it is the fate of the migrants’ children that really has ignited the national debate: Their advocates point out that they are educated in Jewish schools and speak flawless Hebrew — they just aren’t citizens or Jews.

“What about the Jewish heart and Jewish compassion and Jewish morality?” pleaded Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, speaking out against the deportations.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (Associated Press)
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (Associated Press) more >

Mr. Wiesel, who is not Israeli, said he found the issue so disturbing that he felt compelled to speak out on local affairs.

Others fear that scenes of Israeli forces deporting children will do no good to the country’s already tarnished image following last year’s war in Gaza and the deadly attack on a Turkish aid flotilla in May.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who oversees immigration policy, dismissed migrant sympathizers as “bleeding hearts” in a recent television interview. “Nobody is worrying about … the Jewish identity of the state of Israel.”

Israel grants automatic citizenship to Jews but doesn’t have an immigration policy for non-Jews.

To control the influx, the government said in August it would issue permanent residency visas to children of migrants, but the criteria are so tough that most may still be deported. The children must have parents who entered Israel legally, be in school, speak Hebrew and have resided in Israel for at least five years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that his government wanted to “take into our hearts children who grew up here and were educated here as Israelis,” but he warned against creating an incentive for illegal migrants “to flood the country.”

So far, about 600 families have registered with the Interior Ministry. Another 90 families were rejected, while the families of another 1,000 children didn’t even apply because they didn’t meet the criteria, said Sigal Rosen, a migrant activist.

Those families may be deported, she added.

Interior Ministry official Roi Lachmanovich said deportations would begin by the end of this month, after a series of Jewish holidays, and would proceed on an individual basis — there would be no mass deportations.

Since the government announcement, anxious immigrant parents have been rushing to government offices to apply for residency.

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