Israeli Government to Vote on PM's Plan to Stem Illegal Immigration

Plan calls for completing fence along Egyptian border within a year, expanding the Negev-based Saharonim detention facility to increase capacity and building adjacent facility.

On Sunday the cabinet is expected to vote on a new proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tackle the issue of illegal immigration into Israel through the country's borders. In November, the number of known illegal border crossings hit a record high of 2,676, bringing to 13,581 the number of illegal immigrants seized while crossing the border in the first 11 months of the year.

The plan calls for completing the fence along the Egyptian border within a year, expanding the Negev-based Saharonim detention facility in order to increase capacity from 2,000 to 5,000 and building an adjacent facility, with a capacity of 10,000, that was approved by the Knesset last year and was originally scheduled for completion this summer. The plan includes a 2-percent across-the-board cut to all ministry budgets to pay for the NIS 630 million program. The state has already spent NIS 1.5 billion over the past several years to counter illegal immigration.

Migrants in custory, December 9, 2011
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The new plan calls for significantly increasing the fines levied on employers of illegal immigrants, although both this provision and last week's statement by Interior Minister Eli Yishai about fining mayors who hire unauthorized workers conflict with a promise made by the state to the High Court of Justice about a year ago, to refrain from punishing employers until the new detention facility is built. The state also promised to brief the court in the event of any change to this policy.

In announcing the plan this week, Netanyahu called the rise of illegal border crossings "a threat to the economy, to security and to the delicate demographic balance on which the State of Israelis based."

Speaking to Army Radio yesterday, Yishai declared that none of these immigrants would remain in Israel. "Even if it's unpopular I will act to repatriate every infiltrator," the interior minister said. "We can't be softies. It's true that they come from Third World countries, but Israel cannot accommodate all of them," Yishai said.

Migrants' rights activists voice concern about what they say is an escalation in the rhetoric of Netanyahu and Yishai. "The people they call infiltrators for work purposes are asylum seekers whose applications Israel never reviewed," says Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers.

Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin yesterday expressed support for a proposal by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ) under which illegal immigrants from Africa who cannot be deported would receive work permits, at the expense of work visas issued to foreigners seeking to come to Israel. "Since we are obligated to the non-deportation of the refugees, we have no choice but to reduce the temporary work permits issued to foreign workers in favor of giving work permits to refugees," Rivlin said.

The Prime Minister's Office said in a response that Netanyahu's plan contains many new components that will "significantly accelerate the measures to deal with the wave of illegal infiltration," adding that the issue has been part of the prime minister's agenda since he took office.