ON OCTOBER 30TH, 2019, Gena Antigo, a 13-year-old, Israeli-born Filipina girl, woke to news that the immigration police were in her apartment in Tel Aviv. “My mom told me, ‘Wake up, Gena, the police are here,’” she recalls. “I thought it was just a nightmare. When I realized it was reality, I started to cry.”
Gena and her mother, an undocumented foreign worker from the Philippines, were given less than ten minutes to collect what they wanted to bring with them, while the police urged them to hurry up. “I took my clothes and a blanket,” Gena says, “in case I got cold.”
The police escorted Gena, her mother, and a neighbor they had also arrested to a van. “The senior officer told me it’s hard for him to see me cry,” Gena says. “He asked if he could do something to make me stop, because he has kids, and it hurt him to see me cry.”
Gena would spend the next three days in a prison intended for adults.
Gena is a victim of a new, draconian Israeli policy, quietly implemented over the past year, in which the children of undocumented foreign workers are arrested and detained along with their parents. So far, 22 children—most of them born in Israel—have been similarly arrested and imprisoned, with the latest arrest, of a 10-year-old girl, taking place on January 7th of this year.
Gena’s mother, Berly, arrived in Israel in 2004 from the Philippines, and has been working as a home health aide for the last 12 years without a visa. In many ways, her story is not atypical. In the 1990s, following the First Intifada, Israel began issuing temporary visas for large numbers of foreign workers in the agriculture, construction, and nursing industries to replace its traditionally Palestinian workforce and to otherwise do jobs that the average Israeli was not interested in doing. According to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, there are currently 119,875 foreign workers in Israel—102,450 with legal status, and 17,425 without. Of these workers, a large number are women—nearly 70,000, mostly from the Philippines, are working as home health aides. Approximately 12,000 of these women lack legal status.
But while Israel has continued to bring foreign workers into the country, the government has been actively discouraging them from settling there. “Israel does not see itself as an immigrant country that is open to immigrants of all nations, but the national homeland of the Jewish people, and as such, it opens its gates to Jews,” states a governmental report on foreign workers in Israel, prepared in 2011. “That is why Israel has no immigration path for immigrants who come here to work, as is common in most countries of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], nor does it have quotas for immigrants or refugees and asylum seekers.” Children of foreign workers have no legal status, even if they are born in Israel.
In response to a legal battle waged by human rights organizations, there have been three resolutions by the Israeli government granting permanent residency to children who have been living in Israel for a substantial amount of time. The last resolution, issued by the Knesset in 2010, set criteria allowing children to apply for residency status if they have lived in Israel for five years, speak Hebrew, and their parents entered Israel legally—even if they have overstayed their visa. The parents of these children also received a reprieve in the form of a temporary resident visa.
According to activists, the recent arrests of children represent a sharp departure from the status quo. “Based on the decisions of Ariel Sharon’s government, and later Netanyahu’s government, there was a practice not to deport children of school age and their families,” says David Tadmor, an attorney who represents Gena and many of the children of foreign workers who have been arrested in recent months.
Beth Castro, one of the leaders of United Children of Israel, a group of 200 Filipino mothers organizing to protect their children from arrests, confirms that the authorities used to release women who were apprehended on immigration charges if they were mothers to young children.
This changed in December 2018, says Castro, when immigration police began arresting mothers—picking them up at bus stops, on the street, or at home. The women were asked to sign deportation papers as a condition of their release. Then, in July 2019, immigration police began arresting children alongside their parents.
Tadmor believes that the timing of this shift in policy is significant. The arrests of children with their parents began in the months after Netanyahu’s coalition dissolved parliament in December 2018. Israel has remained in political limbo ever since, with two rounds of elections that have failed to produce a government. Tadmor believes the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration is taking advantage of this limbo, ramping up detentions and attempted deportations of schoolchildren and their families “with no authority and without due process.” “We believe all of this is illegal while we are in an interim government,” says Tadmor.
THE WAY GENA WAS APPREHENDED seems to be representative of the new approach to immigration enforcement. “They come early in the morning, they pick the children out of their beds, and they put them in prison,” Castro says. “Only a few days ago, they arrested a father and son, who were on their way to see a doctor. The child has asthma and needed a spray to breathe. They took them straight to prison.”
Gena and her mother were taken to a detention center operated by the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration near Rishon LeTsiyon, outside of Tel Aviv. After receiving news of Gena’s arrest, the principal and two teachers from Herzliya Gymnasium, the school in Tel Aviv where Gena is a 7th grade student, rushed to the detention center. Initially, the guards would not admit that Gena was being held there, but the educators were eventually able to speak with her, briefly, when they saw a police car emerge from the detention center parking lot carrying Gena and her mother in the backseat.
“We promised her that we will not stop until she is released,” recalls Dr. Zeev Degani, the principal of Herzliya Gymnasium. The car drove away, taking Gena and her mother to Givon, a minimum security prison for adults in the city of Ramla, 13 miles south of Tel Aviv, that in recent weeks had become notorious in Israel for holding families of foreign workers, including children as young as one month old.
The educators returned to Herzliya Gymnasium, where Gena’s classmates had already heard rumors of her arrest. “The kids were distraught,” says Daniel Levy, a math teacher at the school. “These kids don’t see any difference between themselves and their classmate who has been arrested. They all share the same friends, same language, they listen to the same music. And then they hear that something like this happened. The first thing they ask is: why? They cannot understand it.”
Soon, Gena’s arrest was making waves across Israeli social media. The mother of one of her classmates wrote an emotional post on Facebook, describing Gena’s arrest and asking for help. The post, which was shared along with Gena’s smiling photograph, went viral. Many Israelis could not believe that this girl—born in Israel and a native Hebrew-speaker—was set to spend the night in prison.
Gena describes her time at Givon as harrowing. She was the sole child inmate at the time, except for one boy—Ralph Harel, age 10—who had been arrested two days earlier, with his mother, a worker from the Philippines. “At night, they locked us in the cell, and they kept slamming the door,” she says. “We couldn’t sleep. One woman would sometimes scream at night and kick the door. I couldn’t see her; I could only hear the bangs.”
Meanwhile, in the hours following Gena’s arrest, Degani consulted with a lawyer regarding Gena’s situation, while the school staff collected bail money. The bail for Gena and her mother was set at 30,000 shekels—about $8,600—a standard amount for immigration cases, and an unattainable sum for foreign workers, who often earn less than minimum wage. Degani also leased 12 buses that would take all of the 7th and 8th graders at Herzliya Gymnasium (with permission from their parents)—as well as students from two other schools—to the prison the next morning to protest Gena’s incarceration.
The next day, a sunny Thursday morning in October, nearly a thousand students, ages 12 to 14, swarmed the prison gates, an unprecedented sight in Israel. The students waved homemade signs that read “We will not let you deport Gena!” and ”So what if they are not Jews, they are friends!” Some students wandered around the prison’s parking lot, plastering cars belonging to the prison system with their posters and huge photographs of Gena.
“The demonstration was loud,” says Levy. “We wanted the kids inside the prison to know we were there.” At some point, one student began pounding the prison fence, and soon, all the other children followed, pounding at the prison fence with their fists, and shouting, “The people are demanding, no deportations!”
While the student demonstration near the prison has been the most memorable, other organizations and schools have held their own actions to protest the arrests and deportations—a testament to how much the policy of detaining children has angered many Israelis. One of the largest recent protests was organized by the Israeli boy scouts, an apolitical organization that nonetheless mobilized in the children’s defense last November.
Following the demonstration at the prison, Gena and Ralph were released on bail with their mothers. Their and their mothers’ deportations have since been canceled—likely in response to the public outcry—though it remains to be seen whether this stay of deportation will prove permanent. Today, Gena is back at school, but she remains shaken by the three days she spent in prison. “I just can’t get it out of my head,” she says. “I’m scared that they will come to our home and take me again. I keep imagining it happening over and over again.”
On January 8th, a judge issued an order canceling the deportations of another family—two twin brothers; their mother, a foreign worker from the Philippines; and their father, a foreign worker from Thailand—stating that Israel should hold a hearing to allow the 12-year-old boys to give testimony on their experience, so that the wellbeing of the children could factor into the ultimate deportation decision. While activists hope that the ruling could lead to the cancelation of other deportation orders, for now, all the other children who were arrested and released on bail are still facing an uncertain future. “My daughter is scared to leave the house,” says Castro. “The children are all traumatized. They were raised here and thought they were safe, and they were taken while they slept. Unless their deportations are canceled, none of these children will feel safe.”
Now, some close to Gena’s case are planning to take legal action to protect children from future arrests. Degani says that he is considering filing a lawsuit with the United Nations’ International Court of Justice. Meanwhile, Tadmor is bringing a petition before the Israeli Supreme Court on January 28th asking the court to rule for the families’ right to a full hearing, with full legal representation, at all hearings that could result in the deportation of a child. (Currently, hearings have been curtailed, with lawyers for the families and the families themselves denied full participation.)
“We believe that arresting school children is against the law,” Tadmor says. He notes that there are only 600 school-age children of undocumented workers currently facing deportation, which points to the idea that their status “is not an immigration issue, it’s a humanitarian issue.”
“Considering its history and the history of its people,” Tadmor says, “Israel should be conscious of the suffering of others and to try to integrate these families, allowing children who are completely immersed in Israeli society to receive education until they turn 18, without deporting them from their community.”