10.03.2006 Diaspora News

Israel Changes Residency Rules

10.03.2006 LISTEN
By Associated Press

... One-time only residency offer has some fretting about national identity Dennis Sarpong used to live in fear that his mother, a Ghanaian on an expired work visa, would be deported. He would walk her to her cleaning jobs every morning because Israeli law bars police from arresting parents in their children's presence.

Now 16-year-old Sarpong is among 150 Israeli-born children of foreign workers who recently were granted Israeli residency. His new status also shields his mother from deportation and he can sleep an extra hour before heading to school. But some Israelis are uneasy that what the government insists is a one-time gesture will become a threat to the identity of the Jewish state.

The issue reveals conflicting impulses that go to the core of Israel's self-image.

A state founded as a haven for Jews worries that its Jewish character is being diluted by a growing Arab minority, lately augmented by up to 300,000 migrants from Africa and Asia. Schooled in the virtues of Jewish self-reliance, it has seen the foreigners become dominant in whole sectors of its economy, chiefly construction and care for the elderly.

But the spectacle of helpless children being threatened with deportation has also touched a nerve, and Israeli human rights groups are waging a court battle to let at least some of them stay in the land where they go to school and whose Hebrew language they speak like sabras - native-born Israelis.

Foreign workers have been coming to Israel since the 1980s, but their number has increased in the last decade to replace a Palestinian work force shut out by Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Estimates range between 100,000 and 300,000, and in a nation of nearly 7 million, granting their children citizenship would not change Israel in any fundamental way, says Roby Nathanson, chairman of the Israeli Institute for Economic and Social Research. Israel is already 25 percent non-Jewish, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

But Eli Yishai, the former interior minister who heads Shas, an orthodox Jewish political party, says granting residency to children such as Sarpong has done "very serious damage to the Israeli identity."

The government should not grant residency to non-Jews, even if they are born here, he said. "Otherwise, we will stop being Israel, and become a country like other countries."

But although the children aren't Jewish, they act just like their Jewish classmates and have never set foot in their parents' homeland.

"I am Israeli," said 9-year-old Danica Hormillada, daughter of Filipino housecleaners. "And also a little bit Filipinit," she added, using the Hebrew word for a Filipina.

The Hormillada children - Danica, 18-year-old Nino and 19-year-old Starsky - speak Hebrew among themselves, but did not meet the strict qualifications so therefore did not win residency and could be deported. For Sarpong, however, "everything got easier" after he received his ID card. Now he can register for a basketball team, and maybe even apply to bring back his father who was deported to Ghana in 2000.

Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer at Hebrew University, said children of foreign workers in Israel are too few to significantly alter the ethnic makeup of society. But if migrant workers continue to move here, "in theory, in the future, it could become a much bigger issue," he said.

The 150 children given legal status in December had to be Israeli-born, age 10 or older, with parents who arrived in Israel legally. Their siblings and parents were granted temporary residency, renewable annually.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have asked the Supreme Court to extend permanent residency to children older than 10 even if they were born abroad and their parents arrived illegally.

This would make about 350 more children eligible, said Hotline spokesman Romm Lewkowicz.

The court has ruled that those children and their families can stay here until the end of this month, when it is to issue a final decision.

"We don't see any difference between someone who came here at the age of 2 and is now 15, and someone who was born here and is now 15," said Yoav Loeff of the civil rights association.

"The aim is to save these children from cultural expulsion. The children are not responsible for the way their parents came here and the country that let them stay so long."

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