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An Ethiopian woman living in Israel illegally stood on Levinsky Street in southern Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, waiting for a taxi. A patrol from the Immigration Police pulled up and demanded she climb into their van and take them to her apartment. The woman protested to the four policemen, telling them that there was no one to fetch her son from school, but to no avail.

Once at the apartment, they searched every corner, asking time and again where her husband was. They did not believe her when she repeatedly said that he had left the country with another woman. They told her she had to leave as well and that this was for the good of her son, because here she would face imprisonment and expulsion. They warned her they would return in two months to check.

Volunteers at the Hotline for Migrant Workers have heard similar stories from single mothers over the past weeks. It is impossible right now to expel single mothers since a government decision is pending about the fate of children born here to foreign workers or living here for many years.

This is how Sigal Rosen, of the hotline, describes the process: "The police detain them; they show their child's passport and/or school documents. The police put the women in their patrol car and continue on their way. En route, they stop a new immigrant who has left his ID card at home and, after questioning, send him on his way; a refugee with papers from the UN; a worker with a legal permit; and occasionally also people who are staying here illegally. After a few hours, they patrol the schools and kindergartens. They go in to check that the mothers weren't lying about their children, and only then do they let them go."

Civil rights organizations and lawyers say this conduct is the best evidence that the Immigration Police have to be disbanded since they merely harass foreign workers who are here legally or scare those who are here illegally but cannot be expelled.

The treasury and police, however, say that because it is so hard to find illegal workers who can be expelled, the police must remain - despite the huge drop in the number of illegal foreign workers.

When the Immigration Police was formed in September 2002, there were at least 200,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel. There are differences of opinion as to how many remain now. Berty Ohayon, who formerly commanded the force, says there are some 50,000-60,000. Atef Dagesh, the present commander, believes they number some 80,000. He cites intelligence reports that speak of 20,800 in private homes, 16,000 in the building industry, and others. At the hotline, they say there are no more than 50,000 including children.

Most of the illegals left the country of their own accord, whether out of fear of expulsion, lack of work, the recession, fear of Iraqi missiles or other reasons. Police say that 23,000 were expelled in 2003 and 18,600 in 2004, according to preliminary estimates. The Labor Ministry says there were 20,000 expulsions in 2003 and 15,000 in 2004.

According to hotline figures, 2,725 illegal workers were detained in January 2004. In December, there were 1,339 detainees. Nevertheless, there are 481 policemen in the Immigration Police force - the same number as in September 2002. Only a third are involved in the patrols and the remainder in intelligence and investigations. There are still also 60 clerks in the Interior Ministry and 90 inspectors in the Labor Ministry whose job is to fine employers and make sure the workers get their salaries before they are expelled.

The number of fines imposed in 2004 increased sharply - to NIS 161 million, but so far most of this has not been collected.

Dagesh says: "Once upon a time, you would come to an apartment and catch 10 illegals in one fell swoop. Today it is a mere one or two. Only the hard core remains and they hide, change addresses and live like wanted people. Some of them take other people's children and pass them off as theirs so as not to be expelled."

The police also have to deal with those who infiltrate over the border with Egypt. Then there are tens of thousands of people who arrive here as tourists but stay on to work, he says. "On the one hand, we have dried the swamps because no new workers are being let in and we have banished the illegal ones," Dagesh says. "But there is a demand and therefore people infiltrate illegally. If they close us down, in three or four years' time we will be in the same place as we were two years ago."

He points out that there are currently also some 70,000 Jordanian citizens living here illegally and a similar number of elderly non-Jews who arrived with Jewish relatives.

Nevertheless, there are those who contend that there is latent unemployment among the ranks of the Immigration Police. They cite the case of eight policemen who waited three days at a building site to catch a Turkish worker who had escaped them. There are others at Ma'asiyahu prison who have nothing to do, they say.

The treasury says, however, that the Immigration Police are worth the NIS 120 million allocated to them in 2004 and the NIS 100 million in the 2005 budget. Part of the decrease in unemployment is thanks to the work of these police, they say, since Israeli workers have been able to take the place of the illegal foreign workers. The treasury's aim this year is to collect more fines from employers of illegal workers.

The population of illegal workers is now very different from that before 2002. There are families with children who lived here for many years, sick people who are getting medical attention, people who feel they have nowhere else to go.

Dagesh warns his policemen to act humanely. Recently they had a seminar on human rights and they have been warned harshly against mistreating the detainees.

Meretz MK Ran Cohen, who heads a committee on the subject, says it would be better if the force changed its tactics to fight trafficking in women and manpower agencies who bring workers here on false promises.