U.S. Immigration Issue Hits Israelis

These days, so much depends upon language. One person’s “civil war” is another’s “random violence.” Someone’s “unlawful wiretapping” is someone else’s “terrorist surveillance.”

In that sense, whether you use “illegal aliens” or “undocumented residents” partly depends on how you view immigration. But whatever your political attitude, if you think that every illegal/undocumented came into the United States guided by a coyote, then think again.

What about those who came here on a legal but restricted visa, then violated its terms? That’s too long for a demonstration placard, but it describes the status of an unknown number of Jews now living in the United States.

Some entered the country as students or tourists, then simply stayed. And then once here, they violated the restrictions of their status, often by working. These people, too, are illegal/undocumented, and they undoubtedly include a number of Israelis, as well as Jews from the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

In January 2006, the Department of Homeland Security published the 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the most recent government document on immigration data.

During fiscal year 2004, authorities found 290 “deportable aliens” from Israel. In that same year, an additional 183 Israeli aliens were removed from the United States and an additional 67 Israelis were under “docket control”: ordered to depart the United States.

That means that in 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were located, deported or about to be deported. It stands to reason that there are a great many more Israelis living in the United States, and in Los Angels, who are here illegally but have not been located by authorities.

The Israeli consulate will not give out information on how many Israelis they calculate may be in Los Angels illegally, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of their presence: for example, ads for immigration attorneys in local Hebrew-language publications and Web sites.

Though Jews comprise a very small part of the millions of people who are in the United States illegally, those who are will likely be affected by the proposed revisions in immigration legislation, just as they’ve been affected by changes in security policy since Sept. 11.

Gideon Aronoff, chairman and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said that what is needed is “to expand people’s attitudes about illegal immigration. As I understand it, something like 40 percent of the illegal immigration into the United States is composed of people who came here on a legitimate tourist or student visa, overstayed the period of the visa, and then remained here, working.” He said that though he does not have exact numbers, that percentage “would certainly include Israelis, as well as Jews from the former Soviet Union and from South America. A smarter and fairer immigration policy would also impact Jews.”

However, Aronoff said that HIAS is not focused only on helping Jews.

“Our interest in good immigration policy is part of our collective mandate to help other communities that we are connected to, and work closely with, such as the Latino community, and by this work to express our humanitarian values,” he said. “Sane immigration policy would mean finding a way of dealing with this issue through a compassionate change in our laws, rather than by using … law enforcement agencies to arrest those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, like busboys and farm workers.”

Aronoff pointed out that if we go back a couple of generations, some of our ancestors came to the United States under circumstances that were somewhat muddy, legally speaking.

“That’s something we shouldn’t forget,” he said.

Roberto Loiederman is a screenwriter and co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny” (Naval Institute Press, 2001).