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Israel's Immigration Crisis Is a Lesson for Trump

A state founded as a haven for the displaced may deport 40,000 job-seeking Africans.
Updated on

On the right side of the wall.

Photographer: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

In his first State of the Union message on Tuesday, President Donald Trump again made his controversial case for building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. Back in 2016, his opponents scoffed at the feasibility of such a grandiose project, he had. But when asked about it by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto he was ready for the question. "Look at Israel," was his response, "Bibi Netanyahu told me the wall works."

It does. In 2006, thousands of penniless, undocumented Sudanese and Eritreans, most of them young men, began crossing Israel’s border with Egypt. Bedouin coyotes led them on a harrowing journey through the Sinai desert and dropped them off. The migrants made their way to the working class neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, where they found cheap housing and off-the-books jobs.

Work was plentiful. Word spread. Soon Israel found itself facing what looked like an unstoppable flow of undocumented migrants. Employers were happy to hire cheap manual workers. Slumlords made a killing from renting overcrowded apartments. But most citizens, especially in Tel Aviv’s working-class neighborhoods, were unhappy with the influx of rootless foreign migrants. 

Bringing the Jewish diaspora back to the Holy Land is the essence of Zionism. In Israel’s 70 years of independence it has welcomed Holocaust refugees, embattled Jewish communities from the Muslim Middle East and, more recently, over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. 

But these latest newcomers from Sudan and Eritrea were different. They were, to put it simply, not Jews. They fell outside Israel’s mission statement. Increasingly, the public came to see them as a problem.

Israel is a problem-solving country. In the fall of 2010, it began building a wall along its 152-mile border with Egypt. It was completed within four years. Built mostly of steel, the wall reaches a height of 25 feet in some places, and is equipped with state-of-the-art electronic sensors, cameras and detection technologies. The whole project came in at less than half a billion dollars. The border is now virtually impassable to undocumented workers as well as smugglers and drug traffickers.

But once you have sealed off the border, Israelis learned, you are still left with the illegal immigrants who are already on your side of it. This is an issue the U.S. will have to contend with if and when it builds its wall. Israel is dealing with it now.

There are an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans in the country, mostly in the Tel Aviv area. Until now they have been allowed to stay on renewable two-month visas. But they are now being notified that these permits will not be renewed. On April 1, they will face three choices: They can return to their countries of origin. They can go to prison. Or they can accept resettlement in a third country.   

Those who take option number three will receive a $3,500 stipend and a one-way ticket. In the past, most voluntary deportees have been gone to Ghana or Rwanda. So far those countries -- which are paid $5,000 per capita by Israel -- have not publicly agreed to take more migrants. Still, some Israeli officials are confident that Rwanda, at least, is on board.

Not everyone will be deported. Children, fathers supporting them and women are expected to be exempt. They are the Israeli version of the U.S. Dreamers, although their future status is unclear. Bona fide refugees from Sudan's Darfur region will also be allowed to stay. But single men of working age who are presumed to be economic migrants -- an estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of the total -- have two months to decide their next destination.

Those two months promise to be turbulent. Left-wing political parties and activists -- with the moral and financial support of “progressive” American Jewish organizations -- have been mobilizing. Demonstrations are already taking place. Some of the protestors have deployed the “hands-up-don’t-shoot” gesture, an American import. Others have been clad in chains. This is a campaign designed for television.

The pictures won’t look good, especially if the police use force to disperse angry crowds. Israel -- which has long been accused of apartheid by Palestinian propagandists -- is sensitive to charges of racism. In their defense, officials cite the fact that in recent years, Israel has deported more illegals from the former Soviet Union than from Eritrea and Sudan. They argue that Rwanda is a safe destination where the United Nations is active in overseeing refugees. And they contend that the $3,500 stipend the deportees receive is generous enough to cover two years of living expenses.

This rebuttal may be true, but it doesn’t change the likelihood that Israel’s image will take a hit. Prime Minister Netanyahu is highly attuned to foreign public relations, but his first concern is the opinion of voters, who strongly support Israel’s right to control its own borders and to remove illegals. This sentiment is not limited to members of his Likud party or religious nationalists. Last month, Tel Aviv University released the results of a two-year survey on the willingness of Europeans to give asylum to foreign refugees. Israel (counted as a European country in the survey) placed second-to-last, above only the Czech Republic. 

American opinion seems to be hardening as well. In Tuesday's speech, Trump proposed allowing Dreamers to remain in the US, but insisted on ending the visa lottery and closing down so-called chain immigration -- positions that have strong public support according to a Harvard-Harris poll published in late January. (That poll also revealed a majority want to decrease legal immigration and give preference to those with qualifications who can contribute to the economy.) Significantly, the president did not tell Congress what he proposes to do with the many millions of undocumented non-Dreamers in the U.S.

Some will be deported, as they have been all along. In 2017, federal immigration officers removed 226,000 people in the country illegally, down slightly from the last year of the Barack Obama administration. Israel’s planned operation pales in comparison, but it will provide a real-life example of a post-wall removal policy. The scale, sensitivities and complexities are completely different, of course, but Trump has proven to be a close student of all things Bibi. Presumably he will be watching.

(Updated to reflect changes in Israeli policy after article was published in 10th paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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