The Newest Israelis


Tel Aviv — The phone call last week from the Interior Ministry broke 18 months of limbo for Juvi Jefferson and her 8-year-old son David over whether they would be able to remain in Israel or be deported to the Philippines.

The Jeffersons and hundreds of other migrant worker families had been waiting for Israel to implement a series of guidelines from August 2010 to grant permanent residency status to children already studying in Israeli schools.

Even though David fit the criteria, the continuing silence coupled with the gradual roundup and deportation of families with infants sowed anxiety.

“When they called to tell me I had an appointment, no words came out of my mouth, because I didn’t know what the answer would be,” said Jefferson, who has been working illegally as a house cleaner for the last eight years. “They said to come to the office and we’ll give you the answer. I didn’t sleep the whole night before, because I kept wondering whether the answer would be yes or no.”

This week, Jefferson and her son David proudly showed off their blue Israeli identification cards and permanent resident visa stamps, relieved that they would no longer have to live in fear of arrest and deportation by Israeli immigration police.

Theirs was one of 257 families to finally get a positive answer from Israeli authorities, marking the first time in years that the government agreed to naturalize families of foreign workers because of their children.

The announcement marked a victory for a several-year-old campaign on behalf of the migrants’ children waged by rights activists, who succeeded in enlisting the support of Israeli celebrities and even the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara.

But nearly the same number of families has yet to hear a final answer from the Interior Ministry. Most of them have children that just missed an age cutoff in 2010, but are now eligible.

“Our big fight is over the first grade,” said Noa Galili, a spokesperson of Israeli Children, a nonprofit that has been part of a coalition of groups advocating on behalf of the children. “The government has to give them the [permanent residency] status as well because it waited so long. In the meantime, there’s a new generation of kids who fit the criteria.”

Rights activists have argued that Israel should not expel children who have been socialized as Israelis back to the native countries of their parents, where the offspring would essentially be foreigners without any grounding in culture and language.

Politicians who oppose granting permanent status to foreign workers accused them of using children to remain in Israel.

“Everyone knows that the parents are using their children,” said Interior Minister Eli Yishai at the time of the 2010 decision. “If they were to say, ‘The trip is over, we’re now going to go back rich to our country to see grandma and grandpa,’ would anyone cry?”

Yishai, of the fervently Orthodox Shas party, has argued that migrant laborers take jobs from Israelis and “threaten the Zionist enterprise.”

Now, he has the last word on the handful of parents whose cases are still undecided.

Rhoda Natividad is one of those parents whose fate is still in Yishai’s hands. Her daughter Charlotte was 5 years old and not yet in first grade at the time the original policy was announced. An initial decision to reject their application was reversed about a year ago, and now she waits for the Interior Ministry’s “exceptions committee” to make a decision.

“We are still hoping and praying. It would be a miracle,” Natividad said. “Hopefully they will change their minds so that kids in first grade will be able to say.”

Charlotte has a big smile, and is eager to show a reporter the T-shirt uniform of Bialik Rogosin, a south Tel Aviv school whose students are predominantly migrant workers’ kids and which was profiled in an Oscar-winning documentary.

When she and Rhoda recall the chants from a recent demonstration on behalf of the children, Charlotte corrects her mother’s conjugation of the Hebrew verb “expel.”

But Natividad says that Charlotte doesn’t understand what the demonstration or the chants are about. “She says, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go home. Why do I have to go back to the Philippines?’”

Like many Filipino migrants, Natividad originally came to Israel with a visa to work as a caregiver. But when she become pregnant she lost her work permit. Ever since, she has been working illegally as a house cleaner.

The oddity of the predicament of this new brand of Israeli children is highlighted by the fact that Natividad is a practicing Catholic but nonetheless buys challah on Fridays in order to educate her kids about the larger culture around her. As she flips through an album of her younger son’s christening, she talks about how Israeli culture dominates her daughter’s life.

“At her age it’s hard for her to go back,” she said. “All she knows is from here: Hebrew, the holidays, like Rosh HaShanah, Chanukah, Purim.”

In recent years, American Jewish groups have weighed in on behalf of the foreigners’ children, with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League paying a solidarity visit in October 2010 to a Tel Aviv school where many are enrolled. Speaking at the Rogosin Bialik School, Foxman said, “In the spirit of Jewish values, we will do all we can to ensure that you remain in Israel.”

Opposite Natividad in her cramped apartment near the Central Bus Station sit a cousin with a child in the same predicament as Charlotte, and a neighbor with children too young to apply. After immigration police knocked on her door looking for someone else in the middle of the night, Angie Falcun said she fears that spending time at home risks the deportation of herself and her 4-year-old son Ronan.

“We are afraid they will come back and catch us. So we are staying [in Natividad’s apartment],” she said. “We are rejected. We didn’t even apply.”

The dilemma regarding hundreds of thousands of guest workers has long vexed Israeli policy makers. Problematic regulation and law enforcement gave rise to a situation in which about half of the population live and work in Israel without the proper work visas.

At the end of 2009, Israel’s 270,000 foreign workers represented 11.8 percent of the private-sector workforce, nearly twice the average for member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the Israeli Central Bank. Economists say that predominance of migrant workers lowers wages and discourages Israelis from looking for work.

The number of migrant families is small by comparison. And those who have gained permanent residency, like David Jefferson, still face an uphill battle. One price of gaining protected status for the Jefferson family was that Juvi and David will have to live without their father, who was deported to Thailand seven years ago.

But at least the Jeffersons can now leave the country for the first meeting with their father in seven years, without risking Juvi losing her residency.

First grader David explained the importance of the decision very simply: “I’m happy because now I can travel to the Philippines.”