Rotem’s work with foreign workers started around six years ago, when she began volunteering as a babysitter with Mesila, a social services program run by the Tel Aviv municipality. Migrant workers are able to work legally in Israel for long periods of time, but the “pregnant migrant woman” regulation stated that migrant women would lose their visas if they didn’t send their child abroad within three months.
Suddenly, 1,200 children who had known no home other than Israel faced deportation. . With only one month to go, Rotem along with two other Israeli women and three foreign workers created the Israeli Children organization and began a successful campaign against the deportations.
In 2010, the government decided that children who have spent at least five years in Israel, whose parents entered the country legally, and who had attended first grade, would be given Israeli residency. However, this was a one-off offer which still left hundreds of children facing deportation and Israeli Children with plenty more work to do.
In April 2011, the Supreme Court finally cancelled the “pregnant migrant woman” regulation, stating that the procedure “harms the right for parenthood and family and the economic expectations of migrant women.” This August, Remi Rolle, one of the founding members of the group who has lived in South Tel Aviv for eleven years, finally received her ID card. “I wanted to jump, I wanted to shout!” she recalls. However, there are still hundreds of children living under the threat of expulsion.
One of the organization’s priorities is to get the welfare services more involved in the issue. “In other countries there’s always an alternative to jailing children,” Rotem explains. “It’s terrible that when the children come face-to-face with the authorities, they’re always in uniform. Israel needs an immigration policy that is backed up by an immigration law. The longer it doesn’t happen, it’s just like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.”
In addition to legal work, the Israeli Children project within ACRI helps the foreign worker community organize. It does this through leadership and advocacy training, with an emphasis on empowering the community. “We provide guidance,” Rotem explains. “They lead everything.”
“If this campaign had taken place today, I don’t think it would have succeeded,” Rotem reflects. “Today people are very opposed to foreigners.” Rotem studied Psychology & Special Education at Tel Aviv University; at some point she wants to do a PhD, but “I don’t have time at the moment!” Either way, she wants to continue combining human rights activism with academia.
“You’re doing holy work,” one passer-by tells Rotem, outside the Bialik-Rogozin School.
In recognition of Rotem’s critical contribution, the New Israel Fund will be awarding her the prestigious Gallanter Prize at the Guardian of Democracy dinner in San Francisco on October 28th. Learn more: www.nif.org/guardian.