The Illegal Residents' Catch-22

According to the bill, anyone who stays in Israel illegally for more than 30 days will not be entitled to any legal status in Israel, unless he leaves the country for one to five years. The term "illegal resident" refers mostly to Palestinians. Indeed, mixed Palestinian-Israeli families would be most affected by the bill.

But they will not be alone. Foreign workers partnered with Israelis, as well as many immigrant families whose relatives - such as elderly parents or children - are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return will also be affected. Israelis married to illegal residents will be asked to choose between moving to a Third World country with their partners, or separating.

This is ostensibly all part of Israel's fight against crime, but in practice the bill targets illegal residents whom Israel itself has created. A Palestinian cannot enter Israel to start a family without becoming an illegal resident. For five years now, new Israeli-Palestinian couples have had no way of achieving family reunification, and therefore they become illegal residents against their will.

Most foreign workers cannot live a normal life here without leaving their original employers and becoming illegal residents. New immigrants often have no way of bringing their families here, except as tourists who then remain here illegally. In many cases, when the law permits family reunification, Population Registry bureaucracy prevents it. So the illegal resident bill would not be a law just to combat crime, but a demographic law intended to help the Population Registry block non-Jews from becoming citizens.

Coming to leave

As is common with Israel's immigration policy, even the illegal resident draft bill is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Ostensibly, if passed, the law would not be retroactive. Illegal residents who submit a citizenship request within 90 days of the law's taking effect would not be required to leave the country to apply for status.

Where is the catch? This does not apply to spouses of Israeli residents who are not citizens - which includes residents of East Jerusalem and many Bedouin. When one partner is a resident, the couple will have to submit a request, leave the country and wait abroad for a hearing. This applies even if they have been married for many years, and even if they have children.

However, the trap is even more difficult and complicated. Because of the citizenship law, which freezes family reunification proceedings, requests may not be heard until applicants reach the minimum age (35 for men, 25 for women). The combination of the two laws will effectively require Palestinian spouses of Israeli residents to leave the country for unlimited periods of time.

The result will be that many of these families will not bother to submit requests. They will simply remain here. The father and often the children will be illegal residents. They will not be entitled to receive national insurance or to work legally. They will live under the constant threat of being expelled. Thus the illegal resident law would create a new shadow status for relatives of Israelis.

Another paradox is that one of the Interior Ministry's main requirements for approving family unification requests is proof that the family's life is centered in Israel. The ministry is unwilling to grant the non-Israeli spouse a permit in order to establish his life here. As a result, a foreign spouse must live in Israel illegally in order to obtain legal status. If the illegal resident bill is approved, by moving his life to Israel, the spouse will be required to leave for being an illegal resident.

Haaretz recently published a series of articles on people living here with no status anywhere in the world. They face the constant threat of arrest, and have almost no civil rights. Because they have no legal status anywhere, they cannot be deported. The illegal resident law would put these people in a Catch-22: Because they lack status in Israel, they will have to leave Israel to arrange their status here. Because they have no status anywhere and therefore cannot leave Israel, they cannot obtain status.

What are the numbers?

Is illegal residency really such a severe problem? There is no way to know. In a June 2005 speech to the Knesset, then-interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz said there are some 300,000 illegal residents in Israel, or about 4 percent of the population. Even if this figure is not exaggerated, is it a lot?

That is unclear. In a Haaretz interview at the time, Pines-Paz said: "Do you know how many illegal residents there are here? From Jordan alone there are 80,000, including those in the territories. From the former Soviet Union there are 110,000 who entered on tourist visas."

Maybe there are, and maybe there aren't.

Haaretz asked the Population Registry for more current figures, but was told they could not be provided. Another figure the Knesset should have when discussing the illegal resident law is what percentage of those requesting legal status from the Population Registry are illegal residents. If it turns out, as may be expected, that they comprise the overwhelming majority of applicants, then the illegal resident bill may be an immigration policy revolution disguised as a technical law.

Status for the children

Interior Minister Roni Bar-On has been receiving a lot of praise lately: MKs and human rights organization are lauding him for the arrangement he worked out for the children of foreign workers. Even though his two predecessors tried to work out such an arrangement, he was the one who succeeded.

However, this praise does have a price: He has set a precedent. In recent months, any group having difficulty achieving civil status in Israel has been asking why foreign workers' children are entitled to status and their children are not. The most difficult problem, of course, involves the children of immigrants lingering on the edge of the Law of Return. This consists of two main groups:

b Children from previous marriages: People eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return may bring their spouses, but these spouses' children from previous marriages do not receive such leniency.

b The fourth generation: The Law of Return grants citizenship to non-Jewish descendants of Jews through the third generation - up to the grandchildren. There is a procedure for bringing the children of grandchildren, but in practice there are many difficulties and obstacles.

Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the Council for the Child, said at the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee hearing two weeks ago: "Thousands of children from immigrant families live here without any rights, under the constant threat of being expelled. These are present-absent children; they are the children with the least rights in Israel.

"Absurdly, a child from the Philippines has more rights than a child who immigrated from the former Soviet Union," he added.

Bar-On was quick to advise him "not to engage in comparative manipulations." He said he is convinced he will resolve the problem. He said the policy would be reevaluated, and asked for six months to find a solution. He said he would not be scared by numbers, and said he would find out how many children are really involved.

"If the numbers are good (low - S.I.), I'll be glad. And if they're not good, I'll have enough courage to stop the process," he said at the meeting.

Previous ministers "part of the time had inappropriate policies, and part of the time did not have a policy. Some had a policy but didn't have the strength to implement it. Those days are over. My policy will be humanitarian and not sectarian," said Bar-On.

He called on the advocacy groups to encourage children to submit requests. Currently children from previous marriages may apply for status through age 10, a number he said he would consider raising to 14.

Nevertheless, after the meeting, participants were not sure whether Bar-On had really promised anything, or what exactly he had promised. An answer was provided Sunday at a Tel Aviv court hearing on Anna Kasef, the daughter of Natalia Spont, both Moldovan citizens. (Their story was published in Haaretz last week.) Spont married a new immigrant, but the Interior Ministry has refused to allow her 11-year-old daughter to follow her to Israel, despite a court ruling.

State prosecutor Yael Antebi Sharon said on Sunday: "Over the last few days, something has happened. The interior minister announced that he wants to review the procedures regarding an accompanying minor."

She asked for a 30-day extension to present the court with a formal policy. And no less importantly for the Spont-Kasef family: The state pledged before the court that in 30 days, 11-year-old Anna will be allowed to enter the country.