Wanted: Immigration Policy

Israel has no immigration policy. As a result, refugee-related issues arise only in times of crisis - and are then dealt with under public pressure which is sometimes subject to manipulation.

The prime minister should be congratulated on his plan to construct a physical barrier along the border with Egypt. The porous border attracts thousands of people who enter Israel illegally. Though Israel has a deep-seated Jewish and humanitarian obligation to provide refuge for those fleeing the genocide in Darfur, it also has the right, like every other country, to secure and control its borders.

But as usual around here, the decision was made without taking into account the underlying problem: Israel has no immigration policy. As a result, refugee-related issues arise only in times of crisis - and are then dealt with under public pressure which is sometimes subject to manipulation.

That was the case with the planned deportation of the children of foreign workers. Whose heart didn't break, whose Jewish conscience wasn't aroused at the sight of the children - some of whom were born here and have never ever been to another country - whom the authorities were threatening to deport? But for all the emotional baggage, the problem, of course, isn't the children but the parents, who are living in Israel illegally.

In a discussion on the Thai laborers working in the Arava region, the farmers offered good Zionist reasons - "How can we have an agricultural industry in the Arava without these workers?" - and they won. But in this case too, the problem goes beyond the issue at hand.

The High Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Israeli Arab citizens have the right to marry women from the territories, who would then be allowed to live in Israel and receive Israeli citizenship. Here, too, there are heartrending cases. The existing interim legislation - which is discriminatory and security-minded, in the negative meaning of the word - cannot resolve such a multifaceted problem, which has to balance norms of universal human rights with treating citizens of enemy countries or residents of hostile areas.

Israel's Law of Return is one of its cornerstones as the Jewish nation-state. But when the law was passed in the 1950s, no one thought Israel would be a magnet for non-Jewish immigrants. The legislative reality today is intolerable. Instead of there being a single clear policy, chaos reigns, along with an absence of judicial clarity, insufficient checks and balances, administrative arbitrariness, an infringement of human rights and harm being inflicted on crucial interests of the State of Israel.

Instead of putting out fires all the time, Israel must adopt a basic policy on foreign workers, asylum seekers and those who want to move here to get married. These are problems that every democratic European country is pondering now, due to waves of immigration from the third world. We can learn from their experience, even though our problem is worse - as Israel is the only developed nation in the world all of whose land borders are with third-world countries.

The Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought recently prepared a draft immigration policy for Israel, with a guiding principle that is "tough on the outside, easy on the inside." In other words, migrant laborers would have to meet strict criteria to enter the country for a limited number of years, but as soon as they get in, they would receive all the benefits they deserve and would not have to rely on intermediaries. As for refugees, Israel would pass the necessary legislation to make sure it upholds the UN Refugee Convention, to which it is a signatory.

What is needed now is for the cabinet to agree to discuss this proposal, along with others, and to make brave decisions - without waiting for the next crisis.