The Legal Aid Center for Olim (LACO)
Israel actively encourages Jewish immigration (aliyah) and has over the past twenty years absorbed over one million immigrants. For many immigrants (olim) this is a smooth process, particularly for those from western countries and those who have no difficulty proving their Jewish lineage. However, there are also many immigrants who face severe difficulties in making the transition to their new homeland. In part, these difficulties reflect the expected challenges of immigration, such as language and cultural barriers, and a lack of informal support systems in the new country. In addition, however, there are specific challenges resulting from the ways Israel defines who is entitled to immigrate and the varying approaches of the agencies responsible for the implementation of these policies.
Under the "Law of Return" the right to immigrate to Israel is granted to people whose Jewish status is universally accepted and acknowledged, and to additional circles of people, including Jews of patrilineal descent; non-Jewish spouses of Jews; people who converted to Judaism; and others. However, immigrants in all but the first category often face bureaucratic harassment, particularly from the powerful Interior Ministry, which is controlled by ultra-Orthodox political parties.
These immigrants are often disregarded by an overloaded bureaucratic system that can take months or years to deal with their case, be it related to the issuance of work permits, expediting family reunification, or confirmation of Jewish status. During this period, they may be deprived of access to the considerable governmental assistance that is the basic right of all Jewish immigrants, such as direct grants, income insurance, access to healthcare, monthly child supplements, assistance in housing, employment, language immersion courses, and more.
Lacking the know-how and financial means to navigate a complicated and hostile bureaucracy, these already vulnerable newcomers are at the mercy of a system that is effectively creating an entire community of second class citizens. As a consequence, many struggle to keep themselves afloat financially, and can quickly slip into a vicious cycle of poverty. The only way out of poverty is to resolve the bureaucratic issues that obstruct access to employment and immigrant rights. LACO is the only place they can turn to for this kind of help and support.
IRAC established the Legal Aid Center for Olim (LACO) in 1992 to provide indispensable assistance to olim who face legal and bureaucratic hurdles in their new homeland. LACO offers vulnerable immigrants far-reaching practical support to navigate the red tape of governmental bureaucracy, effectively replacing frustration and hopelessness with a sense of promise, opportunity, and dignity.
The only program of its kind, LACO offers disadvantaged immigrants recourse in dealing with a callous bureaucracy by giving them access to some of the best immigration lawyers in the country. Through the provision of services such as a hotline, legal advice and full legal representation, LACO is able to resolve difficult legal problems regarding citizenship and Jewish status, help in securing work permits, healthcare and other basic rights, as a precondition for economic and social integration in Israel.
LACO deals with an average of 1,000 new cases each year, and handles thousands of inquiries through its hotline. Nearly 40 percent of LACO's clients are from the FSU, 25 percent are immigrants from Ethiopia, and about one third are converts from various countries requiring legal representation to have their Jewish status recognized. Some 80 percent of LACO's clients live below Israel's median income level, including a substantial number of humanitarian cases of extreme distress such as battered women, widows facing deportation, and people referred to LACO by welfare agencies.
LACO's expertise lies in a variety of areas: registration of Jewish status and citizenship, problems resulting from poor documentation in an immigrant's country of origin (a major issue in Ethiopia), complex family situations (such as remarriage or adoption) and family reunification, and dealing with the general inefficiency and lack of accountability of governmental bureaucracy. LACO's accessible legal aid and counseling services are provided by experienced, top notch lawyers, with a strong legal background in immigration and human rights issues. Founded and directed by Australian born attorney, Ms. Nicole Maor, LACO's staff is composed of individuals who have dedicated their lives to fight for immigrants in Israel, and do so at the highest professional level.