Catholic Migrants Targeted in Israel's Crackdown on Illegal Workers

JERUSALEM — Just before Christmas, the Israeli government announced it would not round up foreign workers living in the country illegally on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Although the community of migrants welcomed this short reprieve and took advantage of it by attending church services, it did not solve the workers’ larger problem: Israel's recent decision to lower the high rate of unemployment by expelling illegal workers has caused panic and fear in the migrant community, which includes thousands of Catholics.

Roughly 60% of the country's migrants have neither a current visa nor a work permit. Thousands of them are Catholics from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. A large percentage are caregivers from the Philippines, and construction workers and farmhands from places such as Romania and Poland. Hundreds of Nigerians, most of them former tourists, clean houses and send their wages home to their families.

According to local clergymen, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, congregations frequented by foreign workers have been decimated by the government's newfound determination to deport illegal workers.

“It's a tragic situation,” said a priest who ministers to foreign workers. “People are afraid to go to church, they're afraid to travel on buses for fear of being picked up by the police. There have been many cases where the police have come to people's homes and forced open the door. It's a kind of persecution.”

Since the start of the crackdown several months ago, the priest said, “a lot of our faithful have been holding religious services at home.” Often, he said, they gather on either a Saturday night or a Sunday night, depending on their work schedule.

“Some of the churches are half full,” the priest said. “I know of some smaller churches, mostly non-Catholic, which have had to shut down entirely.”

The priest acknowledged, “There isn't much we can do about the situation, except to continue to travel to where the people are, to hear their problems even if they don't actually come to Mass.”

Invalid Visas

Some foreign workers traveled to Israel on tourist visas and decided to stay illegally and earn money. Most, however, arrived legally but lost their visas when the person they cared for died or went into a nursing home, or when the worker decided to leave his employer.

In Israel, visas are nontransfer-able, so once a worker is unemployed for any reason, the visa becomes invalid.

Facing international censure for its deportation policy, Israel recently launched a more humane campaign to encourage illegal workers to leave voluntarily. Those who do are granted three months to settle their affairs and leave. Several thousand workers have taken up this offer and more are leaving every week.

Another local priest who ministers to migrants noted, “The problem isn't only for the workers. Consider for a minute the thousands of old and sick Israelis who are being left without caregivers when their helpers are picked up and deported or leave under pressure.”

Paz Bambili, the Israeli director of Bambili, an advocacy organization for foreign workers, said, “Most workers are ready to go home. The problem is that Israeli employers owe them money. Some of these workers are sick. Some of their wives are seven or eight months pregnant.”

Government efforts to force out the workers “have made people live underground like animals,” Bambili said. “These are not criminals; they're normal people like you and me.”

Daniel Seaman, a government spokesman, did not dispute that migrant workers are undergoing hardships.

“It's sad that people must be deported under these circumstances,” he said, but “someone who is here legally has nothing to be afraid of, and no one is being deported for the color of their skin or because they're foreigners. The reason for these drastic measures is that people violated the laws of the state of Israel and have remained here illegally.”

While not defending Israel's deportation policy, Father Michael Blume, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, said Israel should not be singled out.

“Many other countries have similar policies about deportation,” he told the Register in an interview conducted over the Internet.

Father Blume said his office, which deals mainly with the pastoral needs of migrant workers, has not received any complaints from Catholics in Israel.

“Nothing special about this in Israel has come to our attention,” Father Blume said. “Most urgent concerns of migrant workers have not been coming from [this] part of the Middle East.”

The Vatican official added that “the problems caused by fear of deportation of Catholic migrants is properly a pastoral concern of the particular churches in Israel. Organizations of Catholic migrants and their pastors should raise this issue with their bishops if they have not done so already.”

Father Shawki Baterian, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, said his office is well aware of the problem and that priests working with the migrant population are doing everything possible to help them.

He did not elaborate.

Pope's Concern

The plight of migrant workers throughout the world is of deep concern to Pope John Paul II, who in his Nov. 20 address to the Vatican's Fifth World Congress on Migrants said helping migrants is both a duty and a blessed opportunity to strengthen the faith.

The Pope noted that the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants is in the process of preparing an instruction that will address “the new spiritual and pastoral needs of migrants and refugees, and present the phenomenon of migration as a way of fostering dialogue, peace and the proclamation of the Gospel.”

Many Catholic migrants in Israel say they wish to remain, not only because they want to earn money but also because living in the Holy Land enriches their faith.

“I love this country. I love the people and the money is great compared with the Philippines,” said Bella, who declined to use her real name, a Catholic caregiver who lost her visa when her employer died and is now cleaning houses without a visa. “I've already sent enough back home to put a down payment on a new house.”

Asked why she doesn't simply take advantage of the government's amnesty program, she shrugs her shoulders.

“I love living in the place where Jesus was born,” Bella said. “I feel closer to him here. This is the Holy Land, and I believe God will help me find another old lady to care for.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.