Israel divided on deporting migrant children

As worker deportation nears, fate of Israeli-raised kids debated

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Sounding very much like an Israeli, 15-year-old Demet, who is Turkish, said at an advocacy office for migrants that she hoped to join an Israeli army combat unit when she turns 18.

Meanwhile, other children nagged their parents in Hebrew, some wearing necklaces with the Star of David.

“They cannot evict my daughter,” said Florence, a 39-year-old from Nigeria who overstayed her tourist visa 10 years ago to work in Israel. “She was born here.”

Florence, who whispered to her 6-year-old in Hebrew, declined to give her full name for fear it would endanger her pending application.

Like many living in Israel illegally, Florence had thought having an Israeli-born child would allow her to stay — precisely the fear of many Israelis.

The migrants have gained some powerful allies, including Cabinet ministers on the left and right of Israeli politics and a group of Holocaust survivors. The prime minister’s wife has spoken out against the policy, and Israel’s kibbutz movement has vowed to hide the children in the country’s 280 kibbutzim to thwart their deportation.

“This is not the Jewish state I know if it deports children,” shouted Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer during a Cabinet debate.

Israel was founded as an agricultural society, but as it has industrialized and abandoned its one-time commitment to “Jewish labor,” it has relied increasingly on workers from outside.

Originally, Palestinians from the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war filled that need, but with the uprising of 2000, Israel turned to foreign labor.

Fearing attacks, Israel tightly restricted work permits for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, shrinking their numbers from 200,000 in the late 1990s to about 32,000 today and replacing them with Chinese construction workers, Thai farmhands, Philippine caregivers and others.

The visas were meant to last just five years, but nearly 120,000 foreign workers stayed on, according to government statistics, lured by steady work, good money and, in many cases, the need to pay off steep fees from employment agencies, which could run up to $13,000.

Several thousand tourists also are believed to have overstayed their visas and to be working illegally. Israel also has about 17,000 African asylum-seekers who fled violence and economic hardship.

Between the migrant influx and the much higher birthrate of Israel’s Arab population, some here fear Israel’s Jewish majority gradually will be eroded.

Jews make up roughly 80 percent of a population of 7 million.

The government is cutting back on foreigners entering the country. Last year, about 27,000 came to work in Israel — the lowest number since 2004, according to government statistics.

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