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  • Writer's pictureIbrahim Insights

Immigrants and Refugees in Israel: What is the Role of Immigrant Children in Israeli Society?

Immigration policy and reform is a contentious topic in the United States, as in most other countries, and features prominently in the 2016 US Presidential election campaigns. When visiting the Bialik-Rogozin School in the southern part of Tel Aviv it became evident that Israel has a large refugee and immigrant community that is not commonly spoken of. This Israeli public school established in 2004 has 1,178 students from fifty-one countries. The school caters for grades 1 to 12 and of the student population 36% are refugees and 64% are children of migrant workers. Only 43% of students have an Israeli ID. The 57% of students who do not have an Israeli ID normally cannot access basic health care, and outside the educational opportunity of Bialik-Rogozin, are not guaranteed the right to subsequent schooling nor employment. In essence, Israel’s immigration policy privileges those of Jewish descent but leaves in question the future of undocumented children.

Immigration policy in Israel lacks an established path to residency, which could then lead to citizenship for refugees. While the Law of Return that was established in 1950 guarantees residency, and citizenship if desired, to those of Jewish descent, the same cannot be said for Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza, or for other refugees who go to Israel for a better, safer life. The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, expanded in 2008, outlines the pathway to citizenship for non-Jews immigrating to Israel but the reality can be much more complex. While someone who has lived as a permanent resident in Israel for 3 out of the 5 years prior to their citizenship application can qualify for naturalization this process is only sporadically open for refugees.

As the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, the issue has dominated my life. Yet, the complexities of the Israeli immigration problem did not resonate with me until I visited the Bialik-Rogozin school and I realized what uncertain futures undocumented children in Israel had. While 43% of the students with Israeli IDs would be able to join the army, attend college in Israel, and become a productive Israeli citizen, the future for the remainder is less clear. Some students have obtained visas to study in countries like the U.S while others must return to their often war-torn countries of origin.

During a discussion with the school director he mentioned a group of students who were deported in 2012 after the creation of South Sudan. Due the conflict in South Sudan the students had to relocate again to Uganda where they had been visited by Bialik-Rogozin staff who documented their situation. The pictures and stories helped to reassure us that the students were happy and doing well in their new homes, but it did not take away from the reality that the extraordinary experience of the children was caused by the lack of adequate immigration policies in Israel. While the story of these students might have had a positive ending, there is no guarantee that the same will happen to other children who could be deported to countries they no longer know. Since many students leave their home countries at a young age, returning after high school can be a traumatic experience; especially the transition from relative stability to a less secure environment. Similarly, the deportation of parents and the separation of families is also damaging to the mental health of children. A child cannot and should not have to grow up without its family.

The state of Israel was created as a democratic and Jewish state that would give protection to a people that had been persecuted and exiled for thousands of years. In the same way, Israel should consider immigration reform so that there can be a more concrete path to residency and citizenship for refugees and immigrants. The hope and love that the Bialik-Rogozin school offers its students is leading to the creation of productive young adults who can feel pride for a country they have learned to call home. Why would Israel not want citizens who will love and respect Israeli values while bringing culture and diversity to its community? The Bialik-Rogozin school gave me hope for the future of these young children but it left me wondering whether or not Israel would allow this generous experiment to continue beyond secondary school.

Selena Rincon is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort. For more posts and to learn more about Selena’s experience in the Middle East and beyond, check her blog: Selena’s Rincon: My world in a cozy corner.

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