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For the petitioners to the High Court of Justice in the case of the children of foreign workers, this was without doubt an achievement. About two months ago the court ordered the Interior Ministry to grant them work permits. For the first time in their lives, Yohin Mok of Hong Kong and Emmanuel, John and Ronny Sarisorin from the Philippines can work in Israel legally. However, the ruling applied only to the petitioners and not to the scores of other children of foreign workers over the age of 18 who have to work "underground."

Beyond that, instead of truly solving the problem of the four children of foreign workers, who have in the meantime become adults, Israel has turned them into a second generation of foreign workers. The petition in the matter of the children of foreign workers was filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) a little over two years ago, but the court's decision was postponed time and again because of the state's claim that any minute now it was going to establish a policy for granting status to these children.

On Monday the government once again discussed the Interior Ministry proposal called "An Arrangement for Granting Status to Children of Illegal Sojourners, their Parents and their Siblings Present in Israel." Once again the government managed not to decide anything, even though according to associates of Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, it looked as though there was a majority in favor of the plan and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also supported it. In two weeks' time another round is expected in the government. Under the plan, children who fit the criteria will receive permanent resident status and their family members will receive temporary resident status. Those who serve in the army will be entitled to citizenship.

The government has decided to link the status of the foreign workers' children to the Illegal Sojourners Law that was initiated by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. This is a law that will establish a cooling-off period abroad for illegal sojourners who want to be granted status in this country and will very much limit the right of Israeli citizens to marry whomever they please. In one sense it appears the children of the foreign workers have become hostages of the Illegal Sojourners Law. Anyone who wants to advance the very partial solution to their problem that is being proposed by the Interior Ministry will have in return to support a law that will create many more humanitarian problems.

Partial solution

A few months ago, when the plan was first presented, I published on these pages a series of figures that showed the plan would grant status to about 350 children of foreign workers, because of the tough criteria that stipulate, among things, that the children be born in Israel and have spent at least 10 consecutive years here.

On March 22, the director of the Population Administration, Sassi Katzir, met with representatives of the nonprofit organizations that deal with children of foreign workers. At the meeting he explained that this was not just a plan to "launder" the foreign workers' children but rather a plan for all children who have no status, among them great-grandchildren of Jews. The "grandchild clause" in the Law of Return grants the right to immigrate to Israel to non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews. If these grandchildren immigrate with their children - that is, the great-grandchildren - these children have no right to receive citizenship. The plan, according to Katzir, is supposed to solve their problem as well.

However, this explanation suffers from an internal contradiction - because of the stipulation that the children be Israeli-born. By definition, the great-grandchildren not covered by the Law of Return are born abroad. Had they been born in Israel (to parents who had already immigrated and received Israeli citizenship), they would be entitled to citizenship. In any case only 300 to 400 children of foreign workers are covered by the plan.

Attorney Michal Pinchuk of ACRI notes that those who fit the criteria of Israeli-born are many children without status from two sectors: Bedouin and Arab residents of East Jerusalem. However, specifically to prevent the granting of status to these children, additional criteria were set. One of them is the criterion of cultural displacement. That is, only someone who cannot be integrated into the country of his ethnic origin with respect to culture, language and family ties will receive status. Children from East Jerusalem will find it difficult to prove that they cannot be culturally integrated in Ramallah.

Katzir's remarks cast doubt on the calculation that the Interior Ministry submitted to the government to the effect that the plan to "launder" the foreign workers' children will cost no less than NIS 120 annually - costs of education, health and National Insurance Institute payments. This calculation is based on the assumption that for every child, another 2.5 family members will also be granted status. This assumption seems very much exaggerated even with respect to foreign workers' children, as many of the fathers have been deported from Israel.

But if, as Katzir says, the law is applicable mainly to children who have no status and not foreign workers' children, then the relatives of these children are often citizens. For example, if it applies to great-grandchildren of Jews, then their parents - and their siblings who are born in this country - are citizens. In any case, presumably the real cost is far lower than the Finance Ministry is claiming.

According to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 800 Palestinian children fit the criteria of the plan and they will cost NIS 30 million annually, out of the NIS 120 million. This is a very strange argument. Beyond the fact that Palestinian children do not fulfill the criterion of cultural displacement, they are usually children who have at least one parent who is an Israeli resident or citizen. In any case it is not clear why they need this plan to receive status.

However, Netanyahu has a whole string of other arguments against the plan. "Laundering" the children and granting status to family members will, he says, be detrimental to the struggle to reduce the number of foreign workers and bring Israelis back into the labor market. Above all, Netanyahu does not believe this will be a one-time laundering and he is convinced it will become a precedent for further awards of status.

Netanyahu is right

In the matter of the precedent, Netanyahu is right. Even if the proposed arrangement for the children of foreign workers is passed, the problem of foreign workers' children not only will not be solved but will also be exacerbated. Today all the children and their mothers are protected from deportation. What will the state do, after the program comes into effect, with children who do not fit the criteria - for example, the many hundreds of children who have been here for many years but were not born here? Will it begin to pursue, arrest and deport families with small children?

The government's decision is so limited and restricted that inevitably it will roll the ball back to the High Court of Justice. As all the current petitioners do fit the criteria of the plan, ACRI will apparently come to the High Court of Justice with more petitioners. The association will argue on their behalf, among other things, that they are discriminated against relative to children who were born in Israel. That is, ultimately the political system's failure to find a solution to the issue of foreign workers' children, as well to many other issues, will send this decision as well to the judiciary system. According to the Population Administration, "The data that were presented at the meeting mentioned in the article and the subject of the discussion in its entirety related solely to the status of foreigners' children.

Administration spokeswoman Sabine Haddad says that "the matter has been referred to the government for a decision and at this stage no decision has been taken. The Interior Ministry will act in accordance with the decision that is taken."

Not even a bank account

For quite some time now, the term "children of foreign workers" has applied not only to children but to many score of youths and young people. One of them is Andres Galiano, an Israeli in every respect, 23, a native of Colombia, who has been in Israel for 10 years. Galiano has had an Israeli girlfriend for four years now. The Interior Ministry's plan does not apply to him because he was not born in Israel. But as the partner of an Israeli citizen he is entitled to status. The problem is that the Interior Ministry is in no hurry to grant him this status and in the meantime Galiano is not entitled to work and he has no health insurance.

Last year he tore a tendon in his leg and needed crutches for five months. When he recovered from the accident, he broke his arm and was in a cast for an extended period. In both of these cases he was treated at a Physicians for Human Rights clinic as he is not entitled to funding for hospital treatment. "At the Interior Ministry they tell me, `Say thank you that we are letting you stay,'" he says. "They should let me work, make something of myself. It seems to me that they want me to give up and leave."

In a letter that she sent to the Interior Ministry, Galiano's girlfriend Liat Yefet wrote: "I want to have the possibility of choosing a future with Andres and not to act out of desires to be together at any price. I very much hope that the state will enable me to choose out of my own free will, not out of coercion, the person whom I will marry and who will be the father of my children."