TEL AVIV, Israel — Peering over colorful poster boards, school children chant, “I’m an Israeli child, Israel is my homeland!” But while they were born in Israel, speak Hebrew and sport popular Israeli names, they’re not legally Israeli children: they’re the sons and daughters of Filipino, Thai and Chinese migrant workers.
When the school year ends today, 1,200 of these children are scheduled for deportation. As Israel lacks any formal immigration policy for non-Jews, all regulations regarding migrant workers are at the discretion of the interior minister, Eli Yishai.
Yishai, who is also the head of the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, said strict immigration control is essential to protect the Jewish character of the state. A strong supporter of the deportation plan, he recently threatened to give up his immigration duties if the children are allowed to stay.
“[They are] liable to damage the state’s Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation,” Yishai told Ha’aretz, an Israeli daily.
Public outrage over the practice of deporting children of migrant workers led to heated debate and deep divisions within the Israeli parliament. Earlier this month, several thousand Israelis, migrant workers and public figures held a final protest in Tel Aviv in anticipation of expected recommendations from a government committee assigned to the issue, which were to be followed by a final vote by the Israeli cabinet.
But the decision never came. And now, as the school year ends, migrant families are left living in uncertainty, wondering if or when they will be deported.
“Instead of looking for summer camps, these children are looking for places to hide,” said Rotem Ilan, founder of Israeli Children, an NGO leading the fight against the deportation of migrant children.
Hints about the committee’s recommendations released to the Israeli press indicate that if the government grants residency, it will be a “one time, humanitarian” decision.
While Israel is not the only country in the region that does not offer citizenship to its migrant workers, its sizeable foreign labor force and disproportionately large pool of refugees demanding the right of return make a permanent immigration policy in the Jewish state difficult to establish.
Such a move would not be unprecedented. About five years ago, a group of about 900 children were granted residency if they were in Israeli schools, over 10 years old and spoke Hebrew. Jena Zuno, now 23, was one of the “lucky ones.” But, she said, being a foreigner in Israel has not been easy.
“When I was in high school, the other kids would tell me, ‘Come and clean my grandfather’s shit' and stuff like that because their grandfather has a Filipino caregiver who cleans all the mess in their house,” she said.
“It still feels like I am a foreigner even though I am an Israeli because I don’t look like an Israeli. If I take a cab they speak with me in English because they don’t know that I speak Hebrew. My mother always told me, you can stay here but you can always go back if you don’t feel like it — but Israel is my home.”
Out of about 300,000 migrant workers living in Israel, an estimated 250,000 are illegal according to the Immigration Ministry. In response, the Israeli government created a special police unit, known as Oz, to track and deport all illegal workers by 2013.
Ilan said the rules governing the daily lives of migrant workers, which are enforced by the Interior Ministry, are brutally stringent.
“It’s written as a regulation that migrant workers cannot be in relationships,” she said. “They’re not allowed to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and they cannot come with their spouses or bring their children. If they have children, they need to send them to the Philippines or bring them in person and after three months they can return to work.”
The official reason is simple: The foreign workers are here to work, not to be distracted by familial concerns.
Still, because Israel signed the United Nations treaty on child rights in 1990, even children who live in Israel illegally are allowed to enroll in the school system.
Near the Tel Aviv central bus station is the rundown Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, the only area where one can see this cross-section of ethnicities in Israel. The mothers here have formed an ad hoc “neighborhood watch” to look out for immigration police.
“I’m afraid,” said Mila, a Filipino mother with an 8-year-old son on the deportation list. “I run with my son, hide everywhere, cry in front of the buses when the immigration police question me.”
Israelis began recruiting foreign labor during the Intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings two decades ago, when security issues and border closings made employing Palestinians more difficult. Now, Thai migrants mostly work in agriculture while Filipinos are primarily caregivers for the elderly.
Private Israeli manpower companies, in exchange for commission fees far more than the legal limit, often ranging up to $10,000, recruit them in their home countries.
“No one controls this industry,” said Idit Lebovitch, care-giving sector coordinator for the Tel Aviv-based Worker’s Hotline. “Because most of these so-called agencies are not official agencies, you can’t even track the person the employee paid.”
Foreign laborers work for minimum wage, rarely enough to pay back the debt incurred from recruiter fees.
“The maximum time they allow us to work here [63 months] is really not enough for us to recover expenses,” said Ferdie, a caregiver who graduated in electrical engineering but could not find a job in the Philippines.
Ferdie’s elderly employer just passed away and under Israeli law, that’s equivalent to being fired. He now faces a difficult and all-too-common decision: stay and work illegally, or head home.
Berlyn, another Filipino caregiver, sleeps six days a week in a converted dressing room in order to help her elderly employer, who has Parkinson’s Disease, throughout the night. As a live-in worker, she’s on call 22 hours a day.
“I am his arms, his hands, his feet — because he can’t do anything,” she said. “He can’t walk alone, he can’t eat alone or pick up a glass of water because his hands are shaking.”
On her free Saturdays, Berlyn returns to her Neve Sha’anan apartment where several mattresses, clothes and other possessions fill every corner.
“In the wintertime one bed sleeps three people,” Berlyn said. “We pay our $600 rent and split it by 11 people.”
Berlyn sends her whole paycheck save $100 each month to her children in the Philippines; her youngest, now 5 years old, was only 1 year old when she left.
Moriel Matalon, chairman of UNICEF in Israel, said the government should take action against its “revolving door” policy of deporting families, while simultaneously allowing entry to new workers.
“In the Bible — the same one Eli Yishai reads — it says: ‘Love the foreigner, because you were foreign workers in the Land of Egypt,’” Matalon said. “Yet we’ve forgotten this, just 60 years after we created a state.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the reference to the children granted residency five years ago. About 900 were granted residence, not 150.