MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've heard a lot about the debate in the U.S. over deporting immigrants who were in the country illegally. There is a similar debate playing out in Israel. Tens of thousands of African migrants have crossed into the country in the last decade. Now many of them are facing deportation. It sparked an outcry from some corners in Israel. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following this from Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sure thing.
MARTIN: So start by telling us who these migrants are and why they went to Israel to begin with.
ESTRIN: Israel has been grappling with this issue for nearly a decade. There are about 37,000 of them here. They're mostly from Eritrea. They're also from Sudan and other countries. And some of them fled the war in Darfur. Many of them escaped Eritrea because of mandatory military service there that can last for years and years. And some people probably did come for work opportunities, according to migrant advocates that I've spoken to. But they came to Israel because Israel is not too far away.
MARTIN: And what exactly is the Israeli government proposing?
ESTRIN: Well, you know, Israel actually has struggled with this issue for many, many years. On the one hand, Israel gives most of them temporary protected status because it would be dangerous for them to return to their home countries. But on the other hand, Israeli leaders say these people can't stay in Israel. Some argue that they threaten the country's Jewish character. And actually, Israel calls them infiltrators.
MARTIN: That's an official term?
ESTRIN: Yeah, that's the official Israeli term. And now, Israel is laying out an ultimatum - not to all of them but to some of them. And that ultimatum is leave or go to jail. And if they leave, they get $3,500 and a free flight to - apparently to Rwanda or Uganda.
MARTIN: Now in the U.S., the debate over immigration is amplified by the fact that, as so many have said, this is a nation of immigrants. Now, Israel was created as a refuge from persecution. Does that inform the way this is being talked about there?
ESTRIN: Yes, absolutely. There has been very outspoken opposition from groups arguing those very points. These are groups you don't usually hear from speaking about this issue. Actually, I have an Israeli newspaper here. There's a huge ad signed by more than a hundred academics who teach Jewish history and the Holocaust, and they write that Jews in the past were turned away while fleeing persecution, and Israel shouldn't send these people away.
The comic Sarah Silverman, her sister, Susan Silverman, is a liberal rabbi here. And she's calling on Israelis to hide Africans in their homes like Anne Frank was hid during the Holocaust. Now, of course, we should say, you know, this is not Nazi Germany. This deportation plan also does not include women. It doesn't include people with children and many others. And Israel is not the only country in the world that's tried to encourage people to leave who are in the country illegally.
MARTIN: Well, how is Israel responding to this criticism? First of all, how is the government responding to it? And what about citizens? Is this the kind of thing that people are debating with each other as a matter of our national identity?
ESTRIN: Yes, this really does strike to the heart of Israel's core. Israel's ambassador to the U.S. says - reportedly - he has warned officials that this whole thing is hurting Israel's image abroad. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defending this deportation plan, and he says the migrants will be safe. They'll get visas. They'll get work permits in their new countries.
But already there are some signs that this plan may not go according to plan. Prison officials apparently are saying they can't handle jailing all these people if they refuse to leave. And migrants are feeling panicked. An activist I spoke to who works with migrants told me she thinks that the point here is to make people feel like they have no choice but to take the money and leave, so we'll see how many do.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Daniel, thank you.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.