Court frees Filipino woman and learning-disabled son from pre-deportation cell

Court frees Filipino woman and learning-disabled son from pre-deportation cell

Precy Koanka and son Michael James, 12, sent home until Interior Ministry rules on their case, as second incarcerated Filipino family asks court to let them stay in Israel

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Ofrecina (Precy) Koanka and her learning disabled son Michael James, known as MJ, aged 12. (Screenshot)
Ofrecina (Precy) Koanka and her learning disabled son Michael James, known as MJ, aged 12. (Screenshot)

An Immigration Detention Review Tribunal agreed Sunday to release from lockup a Filipino worker and her learning disabled son who are in the country illegally until the Interior Ministry has provided a final response to their request to remain in Israel on humanitarian grounds.

A week ago, immigration officials staged a dawn raid on the Yehud, central Israel home of Ofrecina (Precy) Koanka and her 12-year-old son Michael James, known as MJ. The two have been locked up since at a Ben Gurion Airport facility prior to their deportation to the Philippines.

The Israel-born Michael studies in a special education program and was slated to begin seventh grade in the fall. According to an appeal filed by the family’s attorney, Michael’s learning disability means that he will be unable to learn a new language if deported.

Parents and children from the Hillel School in Ramat Gan meanwhile demonstrated outside the tribunal on Sunday morning demanding the release of a 10-year-old Filipino classmate, Khean Esta, whom immigration agents have also incarcerated prior to deportation to the Philippines.

פורסם על ידי ‏‎UCI United Children of Israel‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 28 ביולי 2019

הסתיים הדיון בבית הדין לעררים בשאלת גירושם של קיאן (10), קתרין (5) ואמם ג'רלדין. עורכת הדין חיה מנע, המייצגת את המשפחה,…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎UCI United Children of Israel‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 28 ביולי 2019

Lawyer and Ramat Gan council member Haya Mena (above) sought to have the deportation order against Geraldine Esta, Khean and five-year-old Kathryn quashed and permission given to the family to remain in Israel, also for humanitarian reasons.

Judge Ilan Halabaga asked the state to explain how its decision to detain and deport the families was in the best interests of the children, who were born and brought up in Israel.

Lawyer Shiran Tourjeman, representing the state, responded that the families were not obliged to remain in detention. They were free to leave the country and could lodge their appeals to remain in Israel once they reached the Philippines, she said.

It was not clear when the judge would release his decision on the Estas.

The Koanka and Esta cases are seen as tests for dozens of other Israeli-born children of illegal foreign workers who have grown up in the Jewish state, call it home and are now facing deportation.

Widespread criticism

Video footage of immigration officials breaking into the Esta family’s Ramat Gan home, arresting a tearful Geraldine, having her pack her bags quickly and driving her and her two bewildered children away to a lockup have drawn widespread criticism.

The three were taken to the Population Immigration and Border Authority’s detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport before being transferred to Givon Prison in Ramle. Khean’s friends from the Hillel School in Ramat Gan demonstrated outside both facilities last week.

In a note entitled “Letter from Prison” which appeared on Facebook on Thursday, Khean wrote, “I’m Israeli and I don’t want to go to the Philippines. I want to stay in Israel and I love you. I don’t wanna leave. From: Khean.”

Esta arrived in Israel in 2004 to work as a carer. But when she became pregnant in 2009 with Khian, she had to leave her job, which involved heavy lifting. Like many other female foreign workers who are still in the country illegally, she fell foul of regulations according to which foreign workers who become pregnant must send their babies home or they else cannot renew their visas and face arrest if they do not leave the country of their own accord.

Many stay on, doing menial jobs, to give their children a better life than they would get in the Philippines.

Several public figures have come out against the deportations, among them Nitzan Horowitz and Mossi Raz of the Meretz party, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Yehud-Monson Mayor Ye’ela Michal Maklis, Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen — a former Likud Knesset member — and actress Yael Abecassis.

The Ynet website reported in Hebrew on Sunday that while Union of Right-Wing Parties lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich favored deporting the foreign workers, URWP leader Rafi Peretz had told the Ramat Gan municipality that he planned to ask Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to give “serious consideration” to allowing the children to stay in the country because of the “special circumstances” in which they have become part of Israeli society.

Half of all caregivers are Filipino

Some 60,000 foreign caregivers — most of them women — are currently employed in Israel, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy and rights organization. Half of them are from the Philippines, with much smaller numbers from Nepal (15 percent), India, Sri Lanka and Moldova (10% each) and the rest from various Eastern European countries.

All of them were originally sought out by the Israeli authorities to look after a growing population of elderly people, who, with medical advances, are living longer. They entered the country legally, often paying massive illegal brokerage fees for the privilege.

A Filipina caretaker with an elderly Israeli woman on the Tel Aviv boardwalk (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: A Filipina caretaker with an elderly Israeli woman on the Tel Aviv boardwalk (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In 2006 and 2009, the Interior Ministry threatened to deport hundreds of Israeli-born children whose Filipino parents had overstayed their work visas. A huge public outcry led to a 2010 “humanitarian decision” to allow around 1,000 school-aged children, born up to 2004, to stay. Most of these have gone on to serve in the Israeli army and to get Israeli citizenship.

Although there was no change to the law, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority largely honored that decision for nine years.

Then, this spring, immigration officials started notifying caregivers whose visas had run out that they were slated for deportation during the summer.

According to United Children of Israel, an organization set up by Filipino mothers and their Israeli supporters to fight deportations, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 Israeli-born school-age children are currently in danger of deportation.

Already, 36 illegal caregivers with Israeli-born children have signed deportation notices promising to go home between July 15 and August 1, of which 25 are Filipino, two are Nepalese, one is from India and one is from Moldova. The Filipinos are thought to include an unnamed mother with an 11-month-old baby who was also arrested during the raid on Khean’s home.

On Sunday, demonstrators gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv. On Wednesday, Filipino pupils from the Hillel and other schools in the Tel Aviv area traveled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. (Below: School friends of Khean’s demonstrate outside the detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport).

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Elad Zamir‎‏ ב- יום שלישי, 23 ביולי 2019

A major rally is to be held outside the Tel Aviv Museum on Tuesday, August 6.

Israeli born children of Filipino carers demonstrating against deportations outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, July 24, 2019. (Sue Surkes)

Public support

United Children of Israel has been collecting messages of support from members of the public who say they cannot imagine life for themselves or their elderly parents without the loving care that Filipino workers have provided.

“Like many, many others in Israel, my father was also lucky to be cared for by a dear, wise and sensitive person who came from the Philippines,” wrote Kobi Peterziel on Facebook, in Hebrew and in English. “I cannot imagine how Dad’s life (and, I should admit, our lives as well) would have been without him.

כמו רבים רבים אחרים, גם אבא שלי זכה להיות מטופל בכל שנותיו האחרונות על ידי אדם יקר, חכם, רגיש שהגיע מהפיליפינים. אין…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎UCI United Children of Israel‎‏ ב- יום חמישי, 25 ביולי 2019

“There are hundreds of thousands like me here. The State of Israel should have looked for every possible way to pay its gratitude to the devoted Filipino community, for its incredible contribution to the well being of the elderly in Israel (and no, the low salary they are getting is not proper gratitude). Instead, the state is going after them and their children. How terrible, how ungrateful, how inhuman!

The vast majority of comments on Facebook are supportive of allowing the children to stay. One Israeli suggested that the Filipino carers go on strike rather than protest “in front of empty offices.” Another wrote, “These images made me feel what Jewish children felt when Nazi soldiers discovered them in hiding.” The Jews, he said, should know better. Several people suggested hiding children who might be in danger of deportation.

A statement from the Population Immigration and Border Authority said that while the workers had been arrested for being in the country illegally, “Out of consideration and a will to accommodate them, a decision in principle was taken to allow their children to finish the school year properly.”

After this, the mothers were expected to honor agreements they had signed by leaving the country voluntarily, the statement said, adding, “We regret the ceaseless attempts to exploit the considerate decision.”

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