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Israel rounds up migrants in deportation campaign

Officials cite high unemployment

TEL AVIV -- For Ben Arellano, it has been a long night: an arrest on the street in the nearby seaside community of Bat Yam followed by uncomfortable sleep on the floor of the makeshift waiting room of Tel Aviv's Immigration Police headquarters. At dawn, Arellano rubs his eyes and slumps back in the plastic deck chair, waiting to be called.

After working nearly five years in Israel, Arellano, 44, one of thousands of migrants targeted by a sweeping Israeli deportation campaign, is going home to the Philippines, whether he wants to or not.

The imminent deportation does not come as much of a surprise to a man who has been away from his family for most of his children's lives, in Israel and previously in Libya and Oman, where he installed oil pipelines.

Still, he fights back tears as he fingers the gold cross around his neck.

''We are only working here," he said. ''We are not criminals."

Over the past decade, Israel allowed in about 300,000 migrant workers to replace Palestinian workers who were barred from their jobs by persistent military closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The influx made Israel second only to Switzerland for per capita employment of foreigners.

But in the last year and a half, the government has been firmly reversing the tide in an attempt to counteract Israel's dismal 10.9 percent unemployment rate. A special Immigration Police force was created to clear the streets and the slums -- mostly in Tel Aviv -- of workers without valid permits. About 100,000 undocumented migrants have since left, about two-thirds of their own volition, according to Immigration Police figures.

Arellano, who entered on a tourist visa, paid a Filipino agency $4,000 to find work in Israel as a caregiver, but he said the agency never got him a work visa. Because he has a family of five in the Philippines to support, he said, he hadn't asked the agency many questions.

Some of Israel's burgeoning ranks of foreign laborers simply overstayed tourist visas as authorities turned a blind eye. But studies indicate many more entered legally to work in agriculture, construction, or caregiving. In many cases, Israel issued the work visas not to them directly but to the powerful manpower companies in Israel and feeder countries like China, Thailand, and Romania.

''The system creates a captive labor force," said Hebrew University sociologist Ze'ev Rosenhek. ''Legal workers cannot change jobs, demand rights, or improve their salary without the risk of getting fired and becoming illegal."

Now the deportation campaign has spread fear among migrant workers of every status. They send text messages on their cellphones to alert friends of police raids, and many say their former employers are too afraid to rehire them.

In June, Israeli media reported on documents and taped conversations suggesting that thousands of legal workers had been detained and possibly deported to fill arrest quotas.

''Once, there was a functioning community here, with churches and community organizations. But they've deported the pastor, the pastor's wife -- and people who are still here have no support network," said Edna Altar-Dambo, director of a resource center for migrants run by the Tel Aviv municipality. ''We're helping fewer people, but with worse problems."

Meanwhile, outraged supporters of the migrant workers are accusing the manpower companies of illegally profiting from the deportation campaign by continuing to import and charge fees for a new crop of workers.

''There is no other country that has invested so much effort and money into deporting illegal residents," said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. ''We claim we don't want migrant workers -- then why are we bringing more workers?"

Shoshana Strauss, an attorney with the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor confirmed that about 100,000 work permits were still being granted yearly for foreign labor, but said that initiatives were in the works to encourage Israelis to fill these positions, including taxing farmers for employing foreigners. Unemployment benefits recently were cut in an effort to push more Israelis into the workforce.

If Israel is continuing to let in migrant workers by day, the Immigration Police are carrying out the deportation policy by night, sending out officers as early as 3 a.m. in unmarked vans to thump on the doors of suspected illegal workers.

Upon arrest, migrants who do not leave immediately -- if their passports have been seized, for example, or if they contest deportation -- are taken to a detention center, where they are given a hearing that, according to one judge, lasts a maximum of five minutes. One such detention center is the Renaissance, housed in a new Nazareth hotel that closed for lack of tourism in the wake of the Palestinian uprising. Bars block the hotel's picture windows, the once-regal carpets are muddied, and the pool has been drained. Up to six migrants sleep in the bedrooms now.

Unless they are Jewish, migrants have little chance of becoming citizens of Israel, whose laws seek to protect the state's Jewish character. Even migrants' children who are born here are not granted citizenship.

According to a recent Haifa University poll, more than half of Israelis think foreign workers are at least partly to blame for the country's economic suffering. But the link between the migrants' presence and Israeli unemployment is contested, particularly because many of the migrants' legal jobs were once filled by Palestinians.

Economists agree only that foreign workers contributed to the lowering of the average salary in construction and agriculture.

Many farmers and contracting companies have since balked at the caps and taxes on foreign workers, saying Israelis are reluctant to perform the jobs left vacant.

''Of course Israelis don't want to take these jobs," said Zvi Eckstein, an economist at Tel Aviv University. ''People will take jobs depending on how much you pay them. Israelis will work in construction if you pay them more."

Meanwhile, migrants such as David Kofi of Ghana are packing their belongings in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Kofi and his wife, Comfort, whom he met in Israel, came on tourist visas and stayed to do what he calls ''the dirty work" -- cleaning houses -- for which there are no visas. Their two daughters were born here.

Inside their Tel Aviv apartment is a souvenir: the door the police broke down last year when they came for David. He said they slapped and kicked him in front of his children, although charges were never filed for lack of physical evidence.

Now, he said, ''I'm taking that broken door back to Africa." 

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