Mila Valdez, 40, lives near the central bus station in Tel Aviv. It is thousands of miles from where she was born, in the Philippines. She and her 7-year-old son live a cramped existence in three small rooms plus kitchen and bathroom plus eight other people. But she is fighting for the right to stay in Israel.
Valdez is among 200,000 foreign workers from East Asia, Africa and Latin America who have found their way to Israel. About half of them are illegal, as Valdez is now. She went to Israel legally but her visa lapsed at about the time she gave birth to her son Jerry. Her apartment is among the Eritrean cafés, Sudanese restaurants and Filipino bars in the streets around the old central bus station underneath a police advertisement inviting residents to inform on their neighbors' visa status. "I am working as a house cleaner because I'm now illegal," Valdez tells TIME. "My husband was caught in 2007 and he was deported. My son Jerry loves Israel. We're hoping to stay."
And it is Jerry who may be key to her chances. He and another 1,200 children are at the heart of a political battle that cuts across traditional political loyalties, raising fundamental questions about the mission of the Jewish state. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, wants to expel the foreign workers, many of whom are devout Christians, like Valdez, a Roman Catholic. Yishai says their presence "is liable to damage the state's Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation." The government says the illegals and their children must leave Israel once the school year ends in June.
A new police unit, Oz (from the Hebrew for "strength"), has been rounding up illegals and shipping them home. Since July, 800 have been deported while more than 2,000 have left voluntarily. But the government decision to expel children born in Israel has split the ruling Likud party. "Those 1,200 children that were born in Israel and didn't ever know another country are not to be blamed. They should stay here and we should resolve their status," Likud minister Limor Livnat tells TIME. The government is still debating the order and it may yet be countermanded or changed. It has happened before. In 2006, Israel naturalized 567 families with school-age children.
The municipality of Tel Aviv, where most of the immigrant workers live, together with about 17,000 refugees mainly from Darfur and Eritrea, provides free health care and day care for children, including vaccinations and education. Adult health services are provided by Physicians for Human Rights. The Hotline for Migrant Workers has people on call 24/7 to provide welfare and legal advice. "Whoever is in our territory deserves our services," deputy mayor Yael Dayan tells TIME. "It's not a question of grace, it's really a question of right. It's not doing them a favor and it's not how moved we are by these little children. They have added a lot to Tel Aviv society in many ways."
The uncertainty of residency and the constant threat of arrest takes its toll on the children. Parents report nightmares, bed-wetting and clinginess. "I've been there in that situation they are going through right now. I was illegal and I was afraid whenever I saw men in uniforms," says Jenalyn Zuno, 22, a Filipina granted permanent residency in 2006.
The problem may be becoming cyclical. Israel started recruiting workers from East Asia 20 years ago, after the first intifadeh ended the flood of day laborers from the West Bank and Gaza. The migrants support entire families back in their home countries. Noa Kaufman of the Israeli Children pressure group, says Israel encourages deporting workers after five years or when they have children. But then those departing workers are simply replaced by new arrivals who go through the same turmoil. "The recruitment companies only get money for new workers. If a worker moves jobs once he's here, the recruitment company doesn't get any money," she says. "It doesn't make sense that there is no naturalization process for someone who was born here or someone who lived here as a refugee for 10 years. They are people, not machines. You can't expect them not to fall in love, not to give birth."