Willen's theme is simple: illegal workers in Tel Aviv are "humans not criminals." An associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, she became personally involved in the lives of foreign workers who came to Israel on work visas in the late 1990s. Once the visas had expired or legal working positions were no longer available to the workers, their status became illegal, and they were subject to deportation.
Willen describes the difficult lives of her subjects and their plight when the government expelled them. She makes the case for deported workers she knew personally and their constant fear of separation from their families. She memorializes a victim killed during a deportation raid.
Living mostly underground in squalor and fear, ethnic groupings create networks of cooperation and religious fellowship that enable them to live what Willen calls "dignified" and "flourishing" lives. She participated in the life cycle events of the "victims" in their homes and at their churches.
Why, Willen asks, can these Christians and Muslims not apply for Israeli citizenship when Russian immigrants who are not confirmed Jews are allowed to do so? She invokes racial profiling and criticizes the treatment of Israeli Arabs, whom she calls disadvantaged and "systematically discriminated" against. Contrarily, she shows zero compassion for a small country with a limited capacity to absorb large numbers of migrants and their families. Even as one comes to sympathize with their very human plight, the question arises, must one condone illegality?
More broadly, this ethnography raises questions along the lines of: How does Israel compare with the very porous borders of the European Union and the United States? What rights has a sovereign government to regulate its migratory policies? What is morality? Unfortunately, the author does not answer them.