Focus U.S.A. / Reminders of Israel in the Arizona Immigration Debate

The fierce debate provoked by the new Arizona immigration law is reminiscent of the debate in Israel over how to deal with foreign workers.

As the debate stirred by the new Arizona immigration law remains heated, it's hard for those who remember the years of the "hunt" for foreign workers at the Old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv not to see the similarity.

As in the U.S., the numbers of illegal immigrants in Israel grew quickly - in 1990 there were only about 16,000 legal foreign workers in Israel, in 2001 the number of illegal workers had reached 139,000.

In the recent years, some refugees and labor migrants have undertaken dangerous journeys via the Egyptian border and the Sinai desert, where Bedouins serve as the Israeli version of the Mexican “coyotes.”

But most migrants entered Israel with tourist visas and stayed to work in the construction, housekeeping, agriculture and caregiver sectors when their visas expired.

In 2005, the number of illegal workers had dropped to 80,000. This happened due to government action – the interministerial commission formed to deal with this complex issue had determined that by 2005 Israel should drive out about 100,000 illegal immigrants.

In the summer of 2002, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave an order to establish the Immigration Administration, equipped with about 400 police officers and a budget of 200 million shekels. A pretty aggressive campaign of “voluntary leaving” made the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood near the Old Central Bus Station, the Israeli capital for foreign workers, suddenly empty.

The arrests provoked a fierce debate about whether it is right to throw whole communities into shock and to tear families apart, as many of the spouses met each other in Israel and some were deported to different countries of origins, and their young children born in Tel Aviv had never known any other country.

As anywhere, there were questions of who to punish – the workers themselves or their Israeli employers and of the fairness of laws that allowed agencies to bring in new workers to replace those who could not stand the harsh conditions and left their employer, losing their legal status.

And of course, there was the question of whether Jewish people that suffered in exile should treat poor and deprived people in such a manner.

With some minor exceptions dealing with children, the debate didn’t alter the government's plans and the mission was accomplished – by the end of 2005 about 145,000 “illegal residents”, as they were called, were expelled or “left willingly”.

Some in Israel would say it was necessary and effective. In a Peter Williams article in “Foreign Policy” which lists the worst immigration laws, Israel is not mentioned.

But for those who covered it back then, it was ugly at times.

In the U.S., some representatives of the Jewish community have plunged vigorously into the current debate. A group of reform rabbis in Arizona sent a letter to Governor Jan Brewer urging her to repeal immediately the Safe Neighborhoods Act.

Children of foreign workers

“This inhumane and retrogressive bill threatens the rights of all Arizona residents by making the failure to carry identification into a crime and leaving the entire population vulnerable to police questioning,”  they wrote.

“Granting local police the power to determine what constitutes suspicious legal status is an affront to American values of justice and our historic status as a nation of immigrants. The bill places law enforcement in an untenable situation, while having an adverse impact on the state’s economy.

"We do not question your intention to protect people from racial profiling. However, we know from our own historical experience, that this is a slippery slope, to say the least….. This bill moves us in the wrong direction, violating the principles of justice on which our nation was founded. We should, instead, focus our energy on comprehensive reform of our immigration system."

The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman told Haaretz: “Well, in terms of size and dimension Israel is nowhere near the U.S."

In the United States, there are about 11 million illegal immigrants. Some communities are much better organized than the foreign workers in Israel, and the immigration policy based upon the law of return doesn’t provide Israel much space or willingness to absorb them legally.

Foxman thinks that in the debate over the Arizona law, there might be a silver lining.

“This law is biased, bigoted and unconstitutional," he said. "It’s a hysterical and politically motivated response to a problem that the U.S. ignored for too long, and it’s not the way to deal with it. But this bigoted response might traumatize the country and force it to finally deal with this issue. However, comparisons of Arizona to Hitler and Nazi Germany, made by some good people who are angry, are inappropriate.”