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'Troubled and Concerned': African-American Lawmakers Urge Israel Not to Deport Asylum Seekers

Congressional Black Caucus drafts letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning of potential humanitarian crisis if Israel carries out plan to deport Eritrean and Sudanese single men

Asylum seekers protesting outside Saharonim Prison, in the Negev, southern Israel, February 22, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus have drafted a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging Israel not to deport thousands of asylum seekers and instead “to pursue alternative means to respond to the African migrants who seek refuge within its borders.”

The letter, obtained by Haaretz, has been signed by 15 of the 49 members of the overwhelmingly Democratic caucus.

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey) is the most high-ranking member to sign the letter, which is expected to be sent in coming days.

It is rare, if not unprecedented, for black U.S. lawmakers to issue such an organized appeal to the Israeli government, particularly on a matter of internal policy.

Earlier this month, Israel began sending out deportation notices to thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. The asylum seekers are being asked to choose between leaving Israel for their home country or another African state, Rwanda, or being sent to prison. The deportations, which at this stage will only affect single men, are scheduled to start in early April, around the time of the Passover holiday.

Democractic Sen. Cory Booker arriving at the U.S. Capitol in Washington for a vote, January 18, 2018.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

Until now, most of the opposition to the plan has come from the Jewish community in North America – spearheaded by prominent organizations like refugee agency HIAS and the ADL. This opposition movement has succeeded in uniting rabbis from across the religious spectrum, both in Israel and overseas.

“We are deeply concerned for the welfare of African migrants who have been resettled and the risk to those who face deportation,” the U.S. lawmakers write in their letter. “Press reports indicate that migrants who have been resettled in third-party countries have faced torture and extortion. Furthermore, nonprofit groups have reported that migrants are not granted a legal path to asylum or temporary protected status in their resettlement countries, nor adequate opportunities for employment.”

Even more alarming, the letter notes, are reports that “migrants are vulnerable to human traffickers and can become trapped in a cycle of abuse, sent to prison camps where they are tortured, or die attempting to flee other nations.

The first page of the Congressional Black Caucus' draft letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The second page of the Congressional Black Caucus' draft letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We are therefore greatly troubled by the plight of African migrants after their departure from Israel.”

The letter was signed by the following members of the House of Representatives (Booker is the only senator who signed): Cedric Richmond (chair of the caucus, Louisiana), Karen Bass (California), Alcee Hastings (Florida), Barbara Lee (California), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Elijah Cummings (Maryland), Gwen Moore (Wisconsin), Brenda Lawrence (Michigan), Eleanor Holmes Norton (District of Columbia), A. Donald McEachin (Virginia), Danny K. Davis (Illinois), Alma Adams (North Carolina), Anthony G. Brown (Maryland) and Stacey Plaskett (U.S. Virgin Islands).

Established in 1971, the black caucus defines its mission as “using the full Constitutional power, statutory authority, and financial resources of the federal government to ensure that African Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” 

In their letter to Netanyahu, the caucus members express understanding for the concerns that prompted Israel’s deportation policy, most notably its “desire to protect its national security and independently shape its immigration policy.”

At the same time, they note, “the strikingly small number of African migrants who have been granted asylum to the country raises doubts about the veracity of the adjudication process.”

Noting that Israel is “a close friend of the United States and vital regional ally,” as well as a “beacon of democracy and good governance in the Middle East,” the caucus members urge the government to rethink its plan.

“Asylum seekers face insurmountable odds,” they note. “Those who have previously left Israel report that promised legal protections remain unfulfilled, placing their legal status and safety in continued jeopardy. Given such a discouraging state of affairs, we seek to mitigate a potential humanitarian crisis.”

The caucus members propose in their letter that Israel work with international partners, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to develop alternative immigration policies that ensure the safety of asylum seekers while “addressing Israel’s security concerns.”

They note that Jewish organizations and prominent Jewish thinkers have been pointing out that mass deportations violate Jewish values and teachings. “We share their concerns,” they note.