TEL AVIV (JTA) – The round-faced boy given the unusual first name of Rabbi by his Filipino parents was born 11 years ago in Israel and has never known another home.
He speaks only Hebrew and has never traveled to the Philippines, but along with some 1,100 other children of foreign workers without work permits in Israel, the boy faces possible deportation along with his family.
"I feel Israeli in my heart and in my soul," said the boy, Rabbi Eliazar Cruz.
His parents initially came to Israel legally, as caretakers for elderly clients, but overstayed their visas.
"The Land of Israel is my land,” Rabbi said. “But these days I stay mostly at home, inside. I don’t want to be caught outside and asked by the police where my parents are and deported."
In late July, a government order to deport the children and their families as part of a larger expulsion of migrants was delayed for three months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the last minute under pressure from the public, local human rights groups and even President Shimon Peres.
Still, the question of government policy on the issue of the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, most of whose parents entered the country legally but stayed after their work permits expired, remains unresolved.
Like other countries in the industrial world, Israel faces the dilemma of how to deal with the families created on its soil by the foreign workers it invites in. But Israel, which has no immigration policy for non-Jews, finds itself in uncharted territory.
"On the one hand, Israel encouraged foreign workers to come for short-term stays and participate in the labor market in fields where there were not enough workers,” said John Gal, a professor of social work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“But there was no contingency for them staying and raising families here,” he said. "So Israel is now faced with a situation where we have children of workers born here but who lack citizenship or clear status.”
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said deporting illegal residents is a matter of law enforcement.
"These people have broken the law and they know that,” she said of foreigners who overstayed their visas. “The law needs to be applied."
Instituting a policy that allows the parents of children born in Israel to stay in the country permanently also would open a route for illegal immigrants to stay in Israel forever: simply have a child here.
In the meantime, some 2,000 children of foreigners have come of age in Israel. They speak fluent Hebrew, attend Israeli schools and have joined youth movements. Some have even served in the military.
In 2006, a one-time government ruling gave 900 of the children permanent residency status. Those whose futures are now in question are the 1,100 others.
"I’m not Jewish, but I am Israeli," said a teenager whose parents came to Israel from Turkey.
The boy was speaking at a meeting of such children Tuesday at the offices of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which is one of the main organizations lobbying against deportation.
Israeli rights groups also take issue with what they call the government’s revolving-door policy of forcing foreign workers out of the country and then bringing in new workers instead of just keeping those who are here and want to stay.
Most of the country’s foreign workers are from the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, China and Africa. The vast majority work as caregivers for the elderly or physically impaired.
After the second intifada began in 2000, large numbers of permits were issued to bring in foreign workers in agriculture and construction to replace Palestinian workers.
In announcing the decision to halt the deportation orders for the children and their parents, Netanyahu’s office released a statement explaining the administration’s stance on illegal residents generally.
"The never-ending flow of illegal residents into Israel during the last few years has led to a situation whereby the percentage of illegal residents in the country is one of the highest in the world, relative to the local population and the number of employees in the job market,” the statement said. “This fact increases unemployment among Israelis and significantly alters Israel’s internal demographics.”
Harel Kohen, an aide to Yaakov Katz, the lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s committee on foreign workers, said that taking a firm line on foreign workers illegally in Israel is about preserving the Jewish character of Israel.
"We need to ensure they do not stay in Israel, otherwise Israel is at risk of having its own people assimilated," he said. "We could lose our Jewish identity."
The Interior Ministry says there are some 300,000 illegal migrants and approximately 70,700 legal foreign workers in Israel.
Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar is drafting legislation that would prevent the deportation and imprisonment of minors aged 3 to 18, along with their parents and siblings. Sa’ar also proposes outlining conditions in which permanent-resident status can be granted to children integrated into Israeli life.
Israel’s daily Ha’aretz endorsed such a bill in a recent editorial.
"A nation that has experienced expulsion orders and refugee status is not allowed to expel the children of refugees and turn its back on the distress of children who want to become part of the country," the editorial said.