TEL AVIV, Israel – TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel will begin deporting families of illegal migrants in coming weeks, officials say, as an emotional debate rages over the ballooning numbers of foreign workers that some fear could threaten the country's Jewish identity.
A decade ago, Israel began bringing in foreign workers in an effort to reduce its dependence on cheap Palestinian laborers. Now tens of thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa who entered the country legally but have since overstayed their visas have developed strong ties to Israel and have no intention of returning home.
How to deal with the migrants hits on two of the most charged issues in Israel. On one hand the fear is that their growing numbers will dilute Israel's Jewish majority, while others warn that deporting them from a country born partly as a refuge for Jewish victims of the Holocaust is immoral.
But it is the fate of the migrants' children that has really ignited the national debate: Their advocates point out that they are educated in Jewish schools and speak flawless Hebrew — they just aren't citizens or Jews.
"What about the Jewish heart and Jewish compassion and Jewish morality?" pleaded Elie Wiesel, the Nobel winning Holocaust survivor, speaking out against the deportations.
Wiesel, who is not Israeli, said he found the issue so disturbing that he felt compelled to speak out on local affairs.
Others fear that scenes of Israeli forces deporting children will do no good to the country's already tarnished image following last year's war in Gaza and the deadly attack on a Turkish aid flotilla in May.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who oversees immigration policy, dismissed migrant sympathizers as "bleeding hearts" in a recent television interview. "Nobody is worrying about ... the Jewish identity of the state of Israel."
Israel grants automatic citizenship to Jews but doesn't have an immigration policy for non-Jews.
To control the influx, the government said in August it would issue permanent residency visas to children of migrants, but the criteria are so tough that most may still be deported. The children must have parents who entered Israel legally, be in school, speak Hebrew and have resided in Israel for at least five years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time his government wanted to "take into our hearts children who grew up here and were educated here as Israelis," but he warned against creating an incentive for illegal migrants "to flood the country."
So far, some 600 families have registered with the Interior Ministry. Another 90 families were rejected, while the families of another 1,000 children didn't even apply, because they didn't meet the criteria, said Sigal Rozen, a migrant activist.
Those families may be deported, she added.
Interior Ministry official Roi Lachmanovich said deportations would begin by the end of September, after a series of Jewish holidays and would proceed on an individual basis — there would be no mass deportations.
Since the government announcement, anxious immigrant parents have been rushing to government offices to apply for residency.
Sounding very much like an Israeli, 15-year-old Demet, who is Turkish, said at an advocacy office for migrants that she hoped to join an Israeli army combat unit when she turns 18.
Meanwhile, other children nagged their parents in Hebrew, some wearing necklaces with the Star of David.
"They cannot evict my daughter," said Florence, a 39-year-old from Nigeria who overstayed her tourist visa to work in Israel 10 years ago. "She was born here."
Florence, who whispered to her six-year-old in Hebrew, declined to give her full name for fear that it would endanger her pending application.
Like many living in Israel illegally, Florence had believed an Israeli-born child would allow her to stay — precisely the fear of many Israelis.
But the migrants have gained some powerful allies, including Cabinet ministers on the left and right of Israeli politics and a group of Holocaust survivors. The prime minister's wife has spoken out against the policy, and Israel's kibbutz movement has vowed to hide the children in the country's 280 kibbutzim to thwart their deportation.
"This is not the Jewish state I know if it deports children," Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer shouted during a Cabinet debate.
Israel was founded as an agricultural society but as it has industrialized and abandoned its one-time commitment to "Jewish labor," it has increasingly relied on workers from outside.
Originally, Palestinians from the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war filled that need, but with the uprising of 2000, Israel turned to foreign labor.
Fearing attacks, Israel tightly restricted work permits for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, shrinking their numbers from 200,000 in the late 1990s to about 32,000 today, and replacing them with Chinese construction workers, Thai farm hands, Philippine caregivers and others.
The visas were meant to last for just five years, but nearly 120,000 foreign workers stayed on, according to government statistics, lured by steady work, good money, and in many cases, needing to pay off the steep fees from the employment agencies, which could run up to $13,000.
Several thousand tourists are also believed to have overstayed their visas and are working illegally. Israel also has around 17,000 African asylum-seekers who fled violence and economic hardship.
Between the migrant influx and the much higher birthrate of Israel's Arab population, some here fear Israel's Jewish majority will gradually be eroded. Currently Jews make up roughly 80 percent of a population of 7 million.
The government is now cutting back on foreigners entering the country. Last year, about 27,000 came to work in Israel — the lowest number since 2004, according to government statistics.
Migrant activists say the government should shrink that number even more dramatically if they don't want to grapple with the burgeoning problem of foreigners and their Israeli-born children.
"If the government doesn't want anymore children, then they should stop bringing in their parents," said Rozen. "It's as simple as that."
(This version corrects spelling of activist name 12th and 31st paragraph.)