Israel's Immigration Agency Weighs Appealing Court Ruling Barring Racial Profiling

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Immigration authority inspectors in Tel Aviv.
Immigration authority inspectors in Tel Aviv.Credit: Oren Ziv

Population and Immigration Authority inspectors cannot stop people to see their identity documents solely on the basis of their appearance, an Israeli court ruled on Sunday. The agency said it was considering an appeal to the country's top court.

Lod District Court Judge Efrat Fink said in the ruling that “approaching a person only because of his or her appearance may result in disproportionate harm to human dignity, selective enforcement of the law and discrimination against minorities.”

The ruling came in response to an appeal made by Samuel Maduabuchi, a Nigerian national who has been living in Israel for about a decade. Two months ago he was arrested by immigration officials near a bus stop in the central city of Netanya, after they discovered that his residence visa had expired. He was brought for a hearing, after which he was due to be deported from Israel.

Maduabuchi had been in Israel legally for most of the past decade, partially on a tourist visa and partially on a residence visa he obtained because he was living with an Israeli citizen. The government and the National Insurance Institute officially recognized him as a victim of a terrorist attack after he was injured in a 2015 incident in Ra’anana.

His residency visa had expired two months before he was detained and he had been seeking an extension since.

Maduabuchi appealed his arrest on the grounds that it violated the Entry to Israel Law, under which immigration inspectors are allowed to demand identity documents only when they have a “firm” basis for assuming that someone should have a visa or other permit to stay in the country. The rules require that they bring the detainee to a court to ensure the procedure is being conducted according to the law.

A demonstration against the deportation of foreign workers and their children, last year. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In their report detailing the arrest, the inspectors failed to say on what basis they had initially suspected that Maduabuchi was in Israel illegally. “In doing so, they left out an important factor in their operation report,” Fink said. Moreover, during one of the hearings, a government representative said that “we don’t want to deny that among other things [suspects] are approached on the basis of their appearance.”

The judge explained in her ruling that due to the fact that there were no other factors that led to Maduabuchi being stopped and that the state admitted to the practice of racially profiling, “the possibility cannot be ruled out that the appellant was stopped mainly due to his appearance… his dark skin.”

Fink ordered Maduabuchi be released and set conditions for his deportation in the future. She also awarded him 4,000 shekels ($1,240) in legal expenses.

In her decision, the judge noted a January High Court ruling, which deemed it illegal for police officers to demand a person present an identity card when they have no reasonable suspicion that he or she has committed a crime. Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut ruled that “in circumstances in which a person has not even been given a clear reason for the powers being exercised, there may be a concern that authority has been exercised arbitrarily.” Hayut added that a police officer is under obligation “to identify himself as a police officer and is obligated under certain circumstances to explain to a person the reason he is exercising his authority.”

Fink said on Sunday that the two cases were related and that in the absence of a clear reason for the immigration inspectors’ actions, such behavior raised concerns about discrimination against minorities.

Tomer Warsha and Asaf Weitzen, attorneys specializing in immigration issues who represented Maduabuchi, said: “The district court has made clear that a uniform standard must apply to immigration inspectors and that they are obligated to act in accordance with equality and without prejudice even when they are identifying and arresting people in the country illegally. Equality before the law is a fundamental right that must be protected. We are confident that the ruling will help promote human rights in Israel for every person wherever they are.”

The Population and Immigration Authority said in response that its inspectors "are instructed to act in accordance with the law and the authority regulations, and this is how they acted in this case."

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