Tel Aviv — Like most other 12-year-old kids born and raised in Tel Aviv, Maya attends public junior high school every day.
But unlike other Israeli-born kids, Maya and her family — migrants from the Philippines — live a life on the run, out of fear that Israeli immigration authorities may one day deport her mother, Sharon, whose caregiver work visa expired years ago.
Since the summer, Israeli police have been arresting and detaining migrants who have overstayed their work permits — as well as their children. Maya, her mother, her father and her sister have been moving apartments every couple of weeks for fear of being discovered by the immigration police.
“It’s uncomfortable. We’re always in a different place,” said Maya, whose real name was withheld by her mother for fear of being discovered by immigration authorities. “Every time we move, I have to ask my mother what bus to take to school. We’re always in a different place.”
Maya says she fears ending up in detention, where she hears from friends that the food is poor and it’s hard to sleep. In addition to the constant state of limbo, Maya and her parents don’t go outside together in order not to risk arrest. “We always need to check if someone is following us.”
Since July, 18 school-age children from about 15 families have found themselves in Israel detention centers, sparking street protests by thousands of their schoolmates and parents at schools and prisons where the kids are being held. So far, nearly all of the children have been released from detention, though their parents could still be deported. One 14-year-old child has been deported back to the Philippines, where he told an Israeli public television crew that he’s struggling to adapt.
A Humanitarian Problem
Maya’s mother, Sharon, came to Israel in 2003 to work as a caregiver, one of tens of thousands of migrant workers — many of them from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka — who enter Israel legally each year as caregivers. However, a government rule in place since 2004 made becoming pregnant grounds for denying the renewal of a work visa — clipping Sharon’s work prospects beyond the elderly couple who employed her. When the lone survivor employing her died in 2012, Sharon she says she couldn’t return to the Philippines because she had just delivered a premature baby and, her elder child, Maya, only spoke Hebrew.
In 2009, former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who once was responsible for immigration policy, called migrants a “threat to the Zionist enterprise,” and said that migrant children “are drowning” Israel.
The following year, Israel’s government approved a one-time “humanitarian” gesture that gave permanent residency to the 371 families with school-age children at the time.
Since then, most of the government has been focused on the tens of thousands of African migrants who entered Israel illegally in search of political asylum. The focus on migrant workers and fear of Israel attracting non-Jewish migrants resonates as a cultural issue with working-class Israelis who form the grassroots support of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, and the ruling Likud.
The Population Authority’s attention shifted back to the children of work migrants earlier in 2019. In September, shortly after the beginning of the arrests, Knesset member May Golan of the Likud party told the Israeli news site Ynet that allowing migrants with Israeli-born children to remain in the country would set a “dangerous precedent.”
Amid public protests of liberal Israelis against past government moves to deport the children of migrants, Israel’s government twice, in 2006 and 2010, decided to grant permanent residency to migrants’ locally born children, age 6 and above, along with their families.
Human rights advocates and critics argue that the recent deportation and arrest campaign amounts to a policy shift within the Population and Immigration Authority, and as such requires government approval. It has been able to go forward nonetheless, they say, because Israel has been operating with a temporary caretaker government due to a months-long electoral stalemate.
“The government changed its policy. The immigration authority had been arresting kids of migrants, but only babies and small children. This summer they started breaking into the homes of migrants and arresting school children,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Some 600 locally born children of migrants who have grown up as Israeli kids are currently at risk of arrest and deportation, according to David Tadmor, Israel’s former anti-trust director general, whose law practice has taken on the cases of the arrestees pro-bono. Tadmor argued that the change in policy was made “unilaterally” by the Population and Immigration Authority and that the practice of putting children in detention is “outrageous,” considering the emotional scars it could inflict on the minors.
“These actions taken by the authority are in contradiction to a well-established government policy and practice that refrained since 2005 from deporting children who go to school here and their families,” he said.
A country with a population nearing 10 million can afford to absorb the families of 600 children without it affecting Israel’s Jewish character, Tadmor suggested.
“Six hundred people are not an immigration problem,” he continued. “Six hundred people is a humanitarian problem. Unfortunately, with all due respect, this is the country of the Jewish people. And for people that have suffered the way we have, and have been discriminated against, and been deported and been subjected to all things that we have, there’s a certain level of humanity that we can afford, and are also required to exhibit.”
Sabin Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, countered that there had been no change in government policy or in the means of enforcement. The immigration authority is simply applying the policy to families with children who were younger than 6 at the time of the 2010 decision. Advocates like Tadmor who argue that the government has effectively observed a ban on the deportation of minors are mistaken, she says.
“There is no such policy. Anyone who makes this claim is lying. The law states that you must have a permit to remain in Israel. If you don’t have one, you’re a criminal. Period. They are breaking the law. We must respect Israeli law. This isn’t a banana republic. … They stay here and their kids have no rights. They have no legal status, and it’s all because of the mothers.”
‘It’s A Crime’
In the summer and early fall, the plight of the detained children drew thousands of protesters. Demonstrators were able to create a public stir just before a judge ordered the release of several kids.
Mira Ayalon, a 47-year-old lawyer, said she had no previous involvement as an activist before helping organize a demonstration outside Tel Aviv’s Gavrieli Carmel elementary school against the detention of a mother of one of the pupils.
“We as a society can’t allow kids to sit in jail. It’s a crime to put kids in jail. I’m for tough immigration laws. But we have to do it logically,” she said. “It’s inconceivable that the state would let these kids go to school, like an Israeli kid, and then decide to arrest them and deport them.”
Though the arrests have slowed, just this week Favour Blessing and his mother Christina, a migrant from Nigeria, were released from detention for the second time in a month.
One child who was deported with his mother to the Philippines in the summer spoke to an Israeli television crew in Manilla. “I feel like an alien here,” Rohan Perez, 13, told Kan 11 news. “I don’t feel normal here. I feel like I’ve moved to a different planet. Or that they’ve kicked me out to another planet.”
Sharon splits her time as a house cleaner and as an activist against the roundups, with an organization called United Children of Israel. She says she’s struggling to maintain any stability since leaving her home in the summer, when immigration agents first came searching for her.
“The life of my kids has been a roller coaster because we have been on the move for four-and-a-half months now. It’s crazy. They keep on saying they want to go back home and that they want to build a Christmas tree. Soon it will be Chanukah,” said Sharon.
“I say, when it’s all over, we can go back to our normal life. But I don’t know when that will be.”