By: Geehyun Sussan Lee, J.D. ’15
One of my least favorite words is “alien”. Growing up as a 1.5 generation American, I generally did not like any words or phrases that emphasized my liminality, my not-quite-enough-ness. However, many of those other words and phrases also had positive angles – encapsulated in the word “immigrant” is a particular brand of the American Dream. But there is nothing redeeming about “alien”. It only serves to isolate, to mark as unnatural, to dehumanize. Add the word illegal in front of it; then, it works to criminalize. Simply by attaching labels such as “alien” or “illegal alien,” perceptions of individuals or whole groups shift drastically.
During my admittedly short time last month working at the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan (“the Clinic”), I saw that this problem of labeling—or rather mislabeling—pervades every aspect of the Israeli asylum system. The mislabel of “infiltrator” attached to asylum seekers creates a public illusion. It plants associations in the public mind that the government leverages to falsely differentiate the population NGOs, like the Clinic, are serving and the population the government is detaining. By refusing to label the migrants “refugees” or “asylum seekers” and instead mislabeling them “infiltrators,” the government not only legitimizes its actions that run counter to international refugee laws but also robs asylum seekers of their personal stories and identities.
The term “infiltrator” originated in 1954 with the original Prevention of Infiltration Law (“the Law”). The Law dealt with armed Palestinian infiltrators who entered Israel for sabotage missions. Thus, the label “infiltrator” became etched in the Israeli public conscience as synonymous with enemy combatants posing an imminent national security threat.
In 2012, the Knesset passed a new amendment to the Law that expanded the scope of the “infiltrator” label to include any individual who enters Israel in an irregular manner. With this one move, the Knesset essentially rendered asylum seekers with valid claims for protection indistinguishable from enemy criminals. Once the asylum seekers were officially branded “infiltrators,” it became much easier for the public to believe in mostly unfounded anti-migrant speech. For example, although the crime rate among foreigners in Israel was almost half of that among Israelis, the public felt justified in seeing African asylum seekers as dangerous criminals since they were officially labeled so.
Mislabeling didn’t simply excuse public biases. It also enabled the Knesset to legitimize imprisoning and detaining asylum seekers without due process. A month before I arrived in Israel, the Knesset responded to the Israel Supreme Court’s invalidation of the 2012 amendment by passing a new amendment which decreed that asylum seekers will be jailed for one year in the prisons, followed by indefinite detention in a specially constructed “open” detention center operated by the Israeli Prison Service. By identifying the African migrants as not asylum seekers but “infiltrators,” who have broken Israeli law, the Knesset could legally justify their detention.
When my fellow clinic students and I visited Holot, we were struck by just how little distinguished Holot from the prisons nearby. Holot is also operated by the Israeli Prison Service. And just as the name indicates (Holot means sands in Hebrew), there is nothing but the desert sand surrounding the compound. The government contends that Holot is an “open” facility since the detainees can “choose” to leave the compound as long as they report back for three designated check-ins during the day. However, with no access to public transportation and the nearest city being six hours away by foot, this “openness” is meaningless. Both Saharonim and Holot are purposefully designed to chip away at a person until his physical and mental wills evaporate into the desert air.
The most tragic consequence of mislabeling is that it robs asylum seekers of their personal stories and identities. One detainee I spoke to at Holot asked, “Why does Israel treat us like criminals?” This man had gone through incredible hardship and had arrived in Israel with hopes of telling his story and being recognized as a refugee. However, as soon he arrived, he was imprisoned and was now detained at Holot. This man and the other detainees I met at Holot had been robbed of not only their physical freedom but also their voices. Under the “infiltrator” label, they are denied opportunities to share and prove their stories through the refugee status determination process.
Hearing the detainee’s stories, I was reminded of just how pervasive and powerful labels like “infiltrator” are. I hated the word “alien” because I felt that when it was used to label me, it negated all the years I spent in the US, the friends I had made, and most importantly, the identity I had crafted as an American. The new amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration law and political rhetoric that refers to asylum seekers as “illegal labor infiltrators” cheapen and negate the asylum seekers experiences. And with no opportunity to correct misconceptions, asylum seekers are powerless to define their own stories or identities.