Children of Foreign Workers Stuck Living in Legal Limbo

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — “It’s really strange that a lot of young people are so frustrated with the situation in Israel that they want to get out of here — and I want to stay,” said Emmanuel Srisuren, 26. “It seems so unfair.”

Born in Israel to Filipino and Thai parents, Srisuren is part of the growing population known here as children of foreign workers. Lacking any legal residency status, the estimated 2,500 ghost children cannot attend university, serve in the army or work after high school. They live in fear of deportation. Yet they have nowhere else to go. They know no home but Israel and usually speak no language but Hebrew.

Srisuren is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in Tel Aviv district court by attorney Michal Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, calling for legal status for foreign workers’ children. The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing in September.

An order issued in early July by the interior minister, Avraham Poraz, would have helped some of the children by granting legal residency to those who have been in Israel for at least 10 years, are high-school age or older and have no criminal record. An estimated 350 children would be affected. Parents would be able to remain with their children until they reach the legal age of adulthood. Temporary residency status would be available to children over 12 who have been in Israel for at least five years and are determined to be “integrated” into Israeli society.

Poraz’s initiative may have been undercut, however, by a Knesset bill that won initial passage on July 21, tightening immigration policies and stripping the interior minister of his discretionary right to grant non-Jews citizenship. The Knesset bill, labeled “racist” by the Labor Party, is intended mainly to block the steady influx of Palestinians via family reunification with Israeli Arab spouses, known as “the creeping right of return.” But the bill will affect any non-Jews born in Israel or residing here, including an estimated 80,000 underage immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Foreign workers have been a steadily growing phenomenon in Israel since the early 1990s, brought here by the hundreds of thousands of workers, mainly by employment agencies, to fill low-paying jobs. Adult foreign workers currently number an estimated 200,000. They hail from nations as far flung as Ghana, Romania and Ecuador, in addition to Thailand and the Philippines.

Frequently well educated but unable to find jobs in their home countries, they come here to work in construction, restaurants and agriculture, or as nannies, home companions and house cleaners. They often come under employment schemes that require them to hand over their assets as security, creating debts they cannot repay. Many don’t know their legal status, since visas are given to the employers, not the workers.

Israeli society welcomed their cheap labor without giving thought to the long-term impact of such a multicultural population. Nor did policy-makers consider that these workers would create lives — and families — for themselves.

More recently, however, alarm has grown, fueled both by media coverage of their plight and concern over the declining Jewish share of the population. The Interior Ministry, seeking to discourage migrants from putting down roots, issued a directive in 2000 denying work permits to migrants who have spouses in Israel. Under new regulations a worker who becomes pregnant can have her legal status revoked, according to Sigal Rozen of the Migrant Workers’ Hotline, a nonprofit agency set up in 1998.

Finally, in 2002, Israel, a nation built on immigration, found itself in the position of creating an immigration police force to round up and deport illegal workers.

Visits to the neighborhoods where the workers live suggest that many have put down roots despite government efforts. Their children know no reality other than Israel’s. By law, the youngsters receive basic education and health care. Still, children say they live in constant fear that their parents will be deported, as will they eventually, though Israeli law bars deportation of children under 16. “For 20 years no one said anything,” said Rozen. “They let the children grow into the vacuum and now they said okay, that’s it, finished.”

Most migrants’ children attend schools in the impoverished Shapira and Hatikva sections of south Tel Aviv. A retired school principal there told the Forward that most of the youngsters speak a “very literate Hebrew.” One Filipino father, Arnold Eligado, told the Forward that his daughter Hazel, age 7, was one of 16 children chosen, out of 400 applicants, for a prestigious private school and that although he is unemployed and his wife works as a housekeeper, they hope to find the money to send her.

At a meeting with youngsters and their parents in the Hotline offices, the children seemed confused when asked their identity. Kids from Ghana, Ecuador, Colombia and the Philippines all said they were Israeli. “There’s an identity crisis for the kids,” Eligado said. “It’s hard to distinguish their identity.”

“I only know Hebrew,” Ninio, a 17-year-old with Filipino parents, piped up. “I want to serve in the army. It’s part of being an Israeli.”

Srisuren is better off than most. His parents work as chefs in prestigious Tel Aviv restaurants and sent him to a private Anglican school in Jaffa. Soft spoken and eloquent, he said he wants to serve in the Israeli army and hopes to go to Tel Aviv University afterward to study writing and acting. “I’m scared of the thought of having to leave. God forbid — I would have to go to the Philippines or Thailand. My mentality will clash. I’m more Israeli than anything else. I do have the chutzpa. And Tel Aviv is so cosmopolitan.”

Ironically, Srisuren observed, Israeli young people in the last few years have been flocking in droves to Thailand after they finish high school or army service. “I know tons of people who have been to Thailand 17 times, but I’ve never been there,” Srisuren said.

“There are so many olim hadashim,” he said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigrants. “They don’t speak Hebrew. They complain. They don’t like the country. It seems so unfair.”

Until his status is decided — by the courts or the Knesset — Srisuren can’t attend university. This summer he is waiting tables at a restaurant on the Tel Aviv beachfront. “The restaurant doesn’t care if you are legal or illegal,” he said. “It’s near the hotels, and they needed waiters who could speak English. They just ask where you are born. You say Israel.”

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