Israel moved Sunday to deport the offspring of hundreds of migrant workers, mostly small children who were born in Israel, speak Hebrew and have never seen their parents' native countries.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the new policy was intended to stem a flood of illegal immigrants, whose children receive state-funded education and healthcare benefits, and to defend Israel's Jewish identity.
"On the one hand, this problem is a humanitarian problem," Netanyahu said during a meeting Sunday of the Cabinet, which had debated the move for nearly a year. "We all feel and understand the hearts of children. But on the other hand, there are Zionist considerations and ensuring the Jewish character of the state of Israel.
"We don't want to create an incentive for the inflow of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers," he said.
Critics, including some government officials, said the decision would punish children by sending them to impoverished or insecure nations that their parents had left in search of better lives in Israel.
The new policy is aimed at children of foreign workers who arrived legally and then started families. Under Israeli law, the children are not automatically granted residency status.
About 400 children and their parents are expected to leave Israel over the next month. An additional 800 children may qualify to stay and receive residency status if they meet certain requirements such as having lived for the last five years in Israel and attended grade school.
Child advocates acknowledged Israel's need to formulate a policy toward migrant workers but said rules should apply to future generations.
"We're talking about children here," said Rotem Ilan, chairwoman of Israeli Children, an advocacy group for migrant workers' families. "They are the children of people who came to Israel legally to work. We brought these people here to plow our fields, build our houses and take care of our grandparents. And with people come families."
She added: "It's the deportation of children that threatens Israel's Jewish character. The obligation to act with kindness and compassion to foreigners is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah."
Sunday's Cabinet decision underscored Israel's ongoing struggle to cope with the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 foreign workers on its soil. About half arrived illegally or have lapsed permits.
Chinese construction workers, Philippine elder-care aides, Thai farmers and others began arriving in the 1990s. They replaced Palestinians as Israel's main source of cheap labor after the West Bank uprisings, which made it more difficult for Palestinians to work in Israel.
Israel has yet to formulate a clear policy on dealing with the foreign workers, including how and when such people can obtain residency or citizenship.
Some critics have called for Israel to expel all the foreign workers, whom they blame for rising crime and strained government resources. But last year Israel issued about 120,000 new permits to foreign workers who fill low-skilled jobs.
To stem the flow of illegal immigrants, Israel recently said it planned to construct a wall along its border with Egypt. The government also has cracked down on employers hiring illegal workers, set up a special immigration law-enforcement unit and offered $3,000 payments to foreign workers with children who agree to leave.
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.