Thousands of parents and children gathered at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon to protest the planned deportation of approximately 50 children of foreign workers this summer. According to the Interior Ministry, the children, who were born in Israel, are in the country illegally because their mothers have overstayed their visas.
Tel Aviv resident Azriel, 13, who was wearing his scouts uniform, said all he wanted in life was to “get an identity card to know that I will be safe to stay in Israel.” He said he was happy to see the large turnout, but worried about what would happen to him this summer. His deportation date is August 1.
“I have family and friends who are going to be deported, but I really want to believe it won’t happen,” said Azriel’s friend Justin, 12, who is also Filipino but did not receive a deportation notice.
It is a recurring story for the country’s Filipino foreign workers, of whom there are are approximately 30,000, in Israel both legally and illegally. They are generally employed as home health care aides for elderly people. Often, these foreign workers come to Israel on legal work visas, but stay in the country to continue working under the table after their visas expire. Many Filipino workers, 85% of whom are women, have been in Israel for upwards of 15 years.
In 2006 and 2009, the Interior Ministry threatened to deport hundreds of children who were born in Israel and whose parents had overstayed their work visas. A huge public outcry led to a 2010 “humanitarian decision” not to deport school-age children. There was no change to the law, but for nine years, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority largely honored that decision, until this spring, when immigration officials started notifying approximately 50 children and their mothers that they were slated for deportation during the summer.
“We’re talking about foreign citizens prolonging their stay contrary to all of the laws and without any legalized status,” said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority.
“The workers were arrested because of their extended illegal stay, although, out of consideration, it was decided to let their children finish the school year.” Hadad said, noting that the mothers and children have received summons for “voluntarily leaving,” rather than the official designation of “deportation.”
Immigration officials arrested women who had overstayed their visas and gave them a departure date in the summer. Mothers who stay beyond that date will be detained with their children at immigration detainment centers until they sign a paper declaring that they are voluntarily leaving the country.
“We are seeing constant attempts to take advantage of this thoughtful gesture [to let children finish the school year],” said Hadad.
The first deportations are scheduled for July 5.
Activists expressed frustration that because of the elections in September, they are not able to lobby Knesset members or put pressure on the Education Ministry, steps they had taken in the past.
Fredy, a Filipino migrant who has been in Tel Aviv for 17 years, helped organize Monday’s demonstration in cooperation with a number of Filipino community groups and schools where children slated for deportation study. “These kids don’t know anything else, this is their home,” said Fredy, who declined to give his last name. “We want to tell everyone in Israel: We are asking, we are begging, don’t deport the children.”
A small group of counter-protesters opposed to foreign workers and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv also came to the demonstration to advocate in favor of the deportations, but were immediately surrounded by a large circle of children chanting “Racists, go home!”
Parents chatted with each other while leaning over strollers, and children of all colors and ages, some dressed in taekwondo uniforms or tan scout shirts festooned with badges, waved large Israeli flags and darted around the square. With the school year ending, the protest almost felt like an end-of-year party, albeit one overshadowed by a dark cloud. Liat Lavi was at the demonstration with other parents, to protest the deportation of one of her 10-year-old son’s best friends.
“It was terrible when we found out. My son cried, he didn’t understand why,” she said. “He can’t understand why it’s happening, why they can’t change it.”
Lavi said she has always been a stickler for the rules and does not support illegal immigration. But getting to know her son’s friend made her look at the use in a more personal light. “They’ve known each other since the first grade, he’s always at our house on Friday afternoons, he is such a polite kid, a wonderful kid.”
Lori, a Filipino worker from Tel Aviv, said she was heartened to see the large turnout at the protest, which filled the square. “It shows us that there are people in Israel who don’t want us to be deported,” said Lori, who has two sons, aged 8 and 9. Neither she nor her children have received deportation notices, but many in the community are worried that the first round of deportations is a pilot program and thousands of other children of foreign workers could be at risk of deportation in the near future. “These kids were born here, their lives are here, they don’t know how to start anywhere else,” she said, holding a sign that read, “I love Israel, but does Israel love me?”
“We’re here because this is happening to our close friends, and we need to raise our voices,” said Mika, 14, part of the scouts group on Dizengoff Street. Two of the scouts in their group had received deportation notices. “These are people who are a part of us,” said Mika. “Everyone should have equal rights, and the right to have a normal life. The fact that they got dealt a different card doesn’t mean they should have to just leave everything suddenly and get up and go.”