Illegal Israeli Workers at Mall Kiosks Atttract Scrutiny of Law Enforcement

Decent Pay Lures Thousands of Undocuemented Immigrants

By JTA

Published February 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story implied that Rami Feinstein was an undocumented worker in the United States. Feinstein is in fact a U.S. citizen. The story has been amended to reflect this.

NEW YORK (JTA) – In 2006, aspiring Israeli singer Rami Feinstein faced a big-time dilemma: Would he sign a 19-year contract with a top talent agent and relinquish 45 percent of his future profits, or take a job selling cosmetics at an American shopping mall?

Familiar SIght:Israelis are a familiar sight in American malls, working at cosmetics kiosks. Now, immigration authorities have taken notice too.
JTA
Familiar SIght:Israelis are a familiar sight in American malls, working at cosmetics kiosks. Now, immigration authorities have taken notice too.

Feinstein took the job at the mall – and it worked out better than he expected.

Not only did he make enough money to cut an album the following year, he found inspiration in the most unlikely of places. The sales pitch he used on clients at the Minnesota mall became the lyrics of “Something Amazing,” his first single.

“The song is about a bittersweet memory from that period,” Feinstein told JTA by phone from Tel Aviv. “As a musician I wanted to make music. But in order to do that I suddenly found myself having to sell cosmetics to American women at a shopping mall. That conflict gave birth to my song.”

Feinstein is an American citizen, but many if not most of the Israelis who find easy money selling brand-name cosmetics at mall kiosks across the United States are not. And not all of them enjoy Feinstein’s fairy-tale ending.

Last month, 13 Israelis were arrested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up salespeople at two shopping malls in Houston. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has been working to stem the flow of illegal workers at the source, producing a video warning would-be Israeli kiosk salespeople that beside the ignominy of being jailed, they faced a potential lifetime ban on entering the United States if they are caught.

“It is true that thousands of Israelis have traveled over the past 10 years and worked at these kiosks,” Charles Shannon, an embassy official, says in the video released in June 2011. “The difference is we know about it now.”

In the United States, talk of undocumented workers is more likely to conjure images of sun-parched Latino agricultural workers or nannies caring for the children of the affluent rather than pushy Israeli salespeople in air-conditioned emporiums hawking eye lotions and hand creams.

But increasingly, the flow of illegal Israeli workers is capturing the attention of American law enforcement, which treats them much as they treat any worker caught working illegally in the United States.

Even so, Israelis continue to flock to U.S. malls, judging the rewards to outweigh the risks.

“I earn more money in one month working at a shopping mall in the U.S. than I would in Israel in a year,” said Noa, who recently returned from a stint at a Texas mall and asked that her real name be withheld.

Noa, who spends the Christmas shopping season working at U.S. malls, says she can earn up to $8,000 in a good month – nearly four times the average Israeli monthly salary. Of her many friends who have worked in the business, very few have been caught, she said. Some use the money to open businesses back home, while others used it to pay for trips to South America.

“You’re standing at the cart all by yourself trying to communicate with people around you, but they’re all saying ‘no, no, no,’ ” Feinstein said. “Just like an artist, you’re constantly being rejected. But if you’re strong and you have something interesting to offer, then eventually you’ll be rewarded.”

After a few weak years, insiders say the kiosk business at malls is booming again. Kiosks are eager for new recruits, and recruiters typically offer to pay to transport potential employees to malls across the United States. Workers are housed communally; rent is generally free for the first month and then heavily subsidized.

Kiosk workers say they live and breathe salesmanship. Shifts are 12 hours long and they receive one day off per week. At night they laze around playing guitar, singing and exchanging stories about their top sales. First thing in the morning they’re back at the kiosk.

The flow of illegal Israeli workers is seen as one reason for the failure of legislative attempts to exempt Israelis from having to obtain U.S. travel visas. A bill co-authored by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Tex.) would waive the requirement for Israelis to obtain a visa prior to traveling to the United States. But the bill is stuck because Israelis have a visa rejection rate of 5.9 percent. By law, visa requirements cannot be waived for citizens of countries with a rate above 3 percent.

Hoping to reduce the rate, Yigal Tsarfati, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s consular section in Jerusalem, recently took the unusual step of asking young Israelis not to apply for tourist visas to the United States.

“I would be happy if young adults would spare themselves the experience of waiting in line, paying high fees and the anguish of having their application rejected,” Tsarfati said, according to the daily Maariv. “By so doing they will contribute to efforts to reduce the number of those rejected.”

In 2009, Congress made an exception to the 3 percent rule for Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania, countries with higher rejection rates than Israel. Sherman said a similar exception could be made for Israel. He scoffed at the notion that doing so would open the floodgates to illegal Israeli immigrants.

“Proportionally, there are more illegal immigrants from Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and about 100 other countries I can get you than from Israel,” he said. “If you’re in a Jewish environment, then you hear ‘bubbe meises’ [old wives’ tales] about the Israeli illegal immigrants at the mall. But there are probably more illegal immigrants in the country from Canada and the UK. We can’t shut down our relationship with them over that, can we?”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.