Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama met this week and like previous meetings between the countries’ two leaders, the topics included the peace process, security, Palestinians, Hamas, land and maybe a little Iran for good measure. Wouldn’t it have been a real breath of fresh air, and especially for a relationship that currently could use a serious “reset,” if Bibi and Barack had spent their time together discussing a topic their two nations have in common? No, I don’t mean common threats to Israel and the United States, I mean a common challenge: immigration.
As strange as it may seem, both Israel and the United States are facing similar problems regarding those from foreign countries who take up residency — legally and illegally — and who want to stay. Both Israel and the United States can learn from one another regarding how to balance labor needs with assimilation and security.
The United States, for example, could take a lesson from Israel regarding temporary work permits. Many of the foreign workers in Israel entered the country legally on temporary work permits for jobs in construction and caring for the elderly. The United States, on the other hand, has a limited number of skilled labor and agriculture work visas. But there are never enough of these visas and meanwhile, the New York restaurant industry would collapse without foreign workers to man the kitchens. States like California, Arizona and Nevada could not exist without foreign labor for the construction and home improvement industries. Only, there is no such thing as an unskilled worker visa, temporary or otherwise. President Obama and members of Congress do want to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, but the conversation about changing the legal immigration system to reflect this country’s labor needs never makes the top of the priority list.
Both countries face the problem of desirability. That is, both the United States and Israel are lands of opportunity for employment and advancement for foreigners. Mexicans and others from Latin and South America look north and see a free and vibrant land where they can prosper and thrive, as long as they get in first. Foreign workers travel from a lot further than crossing the Mexican border to get into Israel, and still it is worth the risk of living in the Jewish State illegally because of how much opportunity and how rich and free Israel is.
My cousin in Tel Aviv teaches history in a high school that just happens to have one of the highest concentrations of foreign-born students in the country. She tells me these kids come from countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey and various countries in Africa. A small number of the Africans are refugees from Darfur, which means they have a different legal status from their classmates. The rest have no status at all. They came with their parents and have been in Israel for years. To interact with them is to realize that besides their religion, they are as Israeli as students their age in any other secular government school. They speak Hebrew fluently, they are studying an Israeli curriculum, they celebrate Jewish holidays like their Israeli-born counterparts (dressing up at Purim, eating matzo on Pesach, celebrating Yom Haatzmaut, etc.) and a large percentage are eager to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces as they approach their 18th birthday.
These children are assimilated and they are as attached to Israel as anyone else. And yet, they have no legal status as the politicians and civic leaders remain stymied deciding what to do with them. Why? Because, like the United States, an amnesty for some foreigners, which would allow the parents and children to stay in the country, is a recipe for more foreign workers to come to Israel. This is exactly the issue the United States faces regarding amnesty for the millions of undocumented residents living here illegally. Indeed, those who argue for tighter enforcement of current immigration laws point to the 1986 immigration reform legislation that resulted in a mass amnesty for illegal aliens as part of the problem. Since that amnesty the numbers of illegals has only increased exponentially. In Israel, there was an amnesty for some 200 foreigners a few years ago. This week, the Netanyahu government is debating what to do about some 1200 foreign-born families with children who are already part of the Israeli school system. And that debate does not address the hundreds of thousands of adult foreigners who remain in the country illegally.
Finally, neither country is adequately dealing with the issue of assimilation as it relates to wanting those who do end up staying to be as much a part of the citizenry as everyone else. To be sure this is much more of a challenge for Israel than it is for the United States because of the religious aspect of being Israeli. But the United States is also guilty of not doing enough to make sure that those who remain here are encouraged to become as American as the native-born. Many communities do not provide enough English-language instruction for immigrants, for instance. In both countries the children of foreigners are assimilating because they are in American and Israeli schools respectively, but neither government is properly tackling assimilation for the parents.
Immigration has been a long-standing challenge for the United States, and Israel is still young enough that dealing with non-Jewish immigration is a relatively new problem. But that doesn’t mean that the subject shouldn’t be discussed between the countries’ leaders. Indeed, such a conversation might just put the special back into America and Israel’s relationship.
(Abby Wisse Schachter blogs at nypost.com/blogs/capitol and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)