Israelis working at the mall: copacetic or illegal

seattle  |  Those attractive Israelis you may see at the mall hawking colorful beauty and hair products from the Dead Sea may not be as innocuous as they seem.

Many are in the United States illegally, working in violation of their tourist visas, and the Department of Homeland Security has taken notice.

In early December, 12 Israelis were rounded up in Kennewick, in eastern Washington.

One, Yuval Oran, remains in detention and has been charged with harboring illegal aliens. The other 11, including Oran’s sister, have posted bond and are expected to testify against him.

An Israeli working at a kiosk at a Seattle-area mall helps a customer with hair treatment. photo/courtesy of jtnews

A few, citing financial hardship, will be able to return home once they provide video depositions, according to court documents.

“They’ve turned the workers into witnesses,” said chaplain Gary Friedman, executive director of Seattle-based Jewish Prisoner Services International, which provided services to the Israelis while they were in custody.

In addition, a small number of other Israelis in the Seattle-Tacoma area were arrested by federal agents, and similar arrests have been made in Texas, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.

The Israelis who manage mall kiosks — most of whom are here legally as dual citizens or resident aliens — say they are running franchise businesses.

Friedman believes, however, that they are a network of con men who entice young Israelis fresh out of the army or school with the promise of making a lot of money in a short amount of time.

“There might be a handful of them who are decent people,” Friedman said, “but by and large they’re con men.”

The consequences, as the arrested Israelis are finding out, are not so minimal. Deportees are banned from re-entering the United States for 10 years, and there are very few exceptions.

The Israelis working at the kiosks know what they’re getting themselves into, and the situation is far from anything resembling human trafficking, Friedman said. The ringleaders allegedly rent comfortable apartments and supply computers and cars, and the workers can leave whenever they wish.

The problem, Friedman said, is they don’t want to leave.

“They can make in three months here what they can make in three years in Israel,” Friedman said the organizer of one such group told him.

Gideon Lustig, deputy consul general for the S.F.–based Israeli Consulate for the Pacific Northwest, said he wouldn’t classify the arrests as a problem, but admitted, “We are concerned about the growing number of Israelis working illegally in Washington state.”

Once the Israelis are arrested, they are held and released on bond, and then generally ordered deported. Lustig said the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working with authorities in Washington, but has refrained from attempts to impose any influence on behalf of the detainees.

“These people are responsible for their actions,” Lustig said. “We are trying to communicate these issues back to people in Israel so they would know what might be the consequences of their doing this, but we are not getting legally involved, as this is the law of the state.”

The Foreign Ministry has, mainly through Jewish Prisoner Services, been working to provide kosher food and shelter to the released detainees. Families in Israel have pleaded with Friedman, the JPS chaplain, to post bond, pay attorneys’ fees or purchase airline tickets.

Friedman said he worries about the way the Israelis’ actions reflect on the Jewish community.

“Obviously the immigration authorities are not thinking very highly of Israelis these days, and I hate to see that because it reflects on Jews and Israel,” Friedman said. “Not just Israelis but Jews in general.”