RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
While the debate over immigration rages here in the U.S., there's a similar debate happening in Israel. Tens of thousands of East African migrants have gone to Israel in the past decade, and now Israel is handing out deportation notices and threatening jail. NPR's Daniel Estrin begins this report outside an immigration office near Tel Aviv.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: So we're here in a parking lot. People from Eritrea and Sudan showed up very early in the morning. A couple guys in line said they got here by 4:00 in the morning. And, one by one, some people are coming out with papers they got from the immigration authorities saying they can take $3,500 dollars and leave to a different country, or else they'll be sent to jail.
MEHRETAB SEYIM: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: This is Mehretab Seyim from Eritrea. He's 28. He says he came here fleeing an oppressive mandatory military service in Eritrea. Israel doesn't consider that a reason for asylum, but Israel acknowledges it's dangerous to send Eritreans and Sudanese back home. So Israel has made deals with two African countries, apparently Rwanda and Uganda, to take in migrants. Seyim was given a document saying he'd be sent somewhere safe. He has until the beginning of April to decide whether to take the plane ticket and the money or face jail.
SEYIM: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: He doesn't believe he'll be treated well in Rwanda or Uganda. He'd rather go to jail. He's losing sleep over it, and so is someone else I meet here outside the immigration office.
ANAT REISMAN-LEVY: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: That's Israeli volunteer Anat Reisman-Levy.
What are you doing here today?
REISMAN-LEVY: Doing whatever I can do to sleep well at night. The big picture is to prevent the deportation.
ESTRIN: She came to help migrants fill out their asylum requests properly. She says she's reminded of her parents, Holocaust survivors.
REISMAN-LEVY: It's not Auschwitz, but the issue of being a refugee and being in danger, and asking for refuge and others' countries do not accept it. We've been there.
ESTRIN: The new policy has prompted a fierce public debate in Israel. Does the country have a historical or moral obligation to shelter African migrants?
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: These conservative talk show hosts are arguing with a liberal lawmaker on the radio. They say it's insulting to compare this to the Holocaust. They say the migrants are a burden on society. They're not the only ones.
YOSSI COHEN: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: This cab driver, Yossi Cohen, tells me the problem is that the African migrants are not Jewish. He says the fear is that tomorrow, the next day, they'll become citizens and take over the country.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defending the deportation plan. He points out Israel is not deporting women and families and letting others stay while their asylum requests are pending. But opposition is growing. Groups of physicians and filmmakers have taken up the cause, and some flight attendants and pilots are calling on airlines not to fly people to Africa. And there's some concern among Jews in the U.S. An American Jewish community leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, said on a visit to Israel that he and heads of several Jewish organizations are studying the issue.
MALCOLM HOENLEIN: We have this debate raging in the United States right now. And there's no way that you can make it look nice when people are leaving a country, but at the same time, we recognize that every country has to set standards.
ESTRIN: Just this week, Israel jailed the first few Eritreans who refused deportation. But prison officials say they might not even have the space to jail everyone who won't leave. Pressure is building on the government to come up with another solution. Daniel Estrin, NPR News.
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