By Nathan MacKenzie, J.D. ’17
Sometimes the best way to better understand your own world is to visit another. Doing so gives you a different frame of reference, an alternative against which you can challenge your perspective and your preconceived notions. As a student of immigration policy here in the U.S., I found that spending January term working in an Israeli immigration clinic in Tel Aviv challenged many of my own ideas on citizenship, society, and immigration. I had the opportunity to work as a student attorney for the Clinic for Migrant’s Rights at the College of Law and Business, where I assisted with client intake interviews for asylum seekers, met with organizations and government officials involved in the immigration debate in Israel, and conducted international and comparative research for upcoming impact litigation cases. In order to gain some additional perspective, I spent my weekends traveling to the Holot detention center for immigrants, the holy sites in Jerusalem, and the West Bank. What I learned from all of these work and travel experiences left me with a picture of an immigration system very different from our own, both in its philosophical aims and its technical administration.
Israel considers itself a “Jewish Democratic State,” but there is a big debate raging about what exactly that means. What should take priority, being Jewish, or being a liberal democracy? What should the demographics of Israeli society look like moving forward? These questions illicit fierce and seemingly irreconcilable responses from various factions. This divide has led to system of laws that is a mash-up of western democratic principles, old Jewish law, and protectionist policies. For example, though the government is elected democratically and several human rights are protected in Basic Laws, buses do not run on Saturday (Shabbat) and Jews cannot marry non-Jews.
These competing concepts have an enormous impact in Israel’s immigration policy. Unlike the U.S., Israel’s immigration policy only really allows people of Jewish ancestry to attain residency and citizenship. Known as the Law of Return or “making aliyah,” Jewish people worldwide can come to Israel and apply for citizenship. There are very few opportunities for other people to achieve permanent residence in Israel, even through the asylum process.
Approximately 46,000 asylum seekers live in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They arrived by crossing the Sinai from Egypt (before Israel constructed a massive wall on the border) and many spent months in Bedouin torture camps there before their families could pay high ransoms to secure their release. Though the government will not deport people to either Sudan or Eritrea because of human rights concerns in those countries, it has been loath to grant refugee status and asylum to non-Jewish immigrants and has been engaging in a campaign to coerce these individuals to “voluntarily” leave to a third party country (Rwanda or Uganda) through detention in the infamous Holot facility and over burdensome administrative procedures.
While working at the clinic, I had the opportunity to use the interviewing skills I learned at the Harvard Immigration & Refugee Clinic (HIRC) to conduct an intake interview and then produced a legal memo on the new client’s case. Additionally, I conducted research for several cases, including a major impact litigation case that will be going before the Israeli Supreme Court next month. Though I was only there for a few weeks, I felt like I was able to perform meaningful work that helped my hosts with their large caseloads. Perhaps just as importantly, this experience gave me the opportunity to learn about Israel and its immigration system, which in turn has allowed me to reflect upon the aims and administration of our own system here in the U.S.