Inside the Fight to Stop Israel Deporting Israeli-born Children

Last May, Gena Antigo updated her Facebook profile photo. Being a sixth-grader at the time, it was of course a selfie. In the picture, she lies on the ground with a broad smile, her eyes sparkling, her hands folded into the shape of a heart. The words on her shirt read “Now is the best moment of my life.” The text framing the photo says: “I Stand With Israel Forever.”

At dawn last Wednesday, as the Israeli-born 13-year-old was getting ready for school, Population and Immigration Authority officials came to the apartment where she lives with her Philippines-born mother, Berly, who has lived in Israel without a permit since 2004. They were arrested and sent to a prison near Tel Aviv, pending possible deportation to the Philippines — a country Antigo has never lived in or even visited. Friends and activists who spoke with the teenager while she sat in a jail cell reported that she could not stop crying.

The following day, hundreds of Israeli children — many of them Antigo’s classmates — demonstrated outside the Ramle prison where Gena and her mom were being held. Also detained there was an Israeli-born Filipino boy, 10-year-old Ralph Harel, and his mother Maureen. The protesters held signs stating “They are children, just like us” and chanted “Dery, Dery, interior minister, children are not criminals,” referring to Arye Dery, whose ministry oversees the Population and Immigration Authority in charge of deportations.

13-year-old Gena Antigo with his mother and 10-year-old Ralph Harel with his mother. Both were born in Israel to a Filipino mother on a work visa and now face potential deportation Tomer Appelbaum

The day after the protests, an Israeli appeals court ordered that all four of the detainees be released. And it went a step further on Sunday, overturning the deportation order and chiding the Population and Immigration Authority for not taking the children’s welfare into account, despite new Justice Ministry guidelines stating that they must do so.

Advocates say the precedent set by Sunday’s decision may well prove a tipping point. “Potentially, it is a huge change,” says David Tadmor, the lawyer representing Gena Antigo and several other families faced with deportation. “These are children born and educated in Israel, they speak Hebrew and not the language of where their mothers come from. They are completely integrated here and know no other country except Israel. It will be hard to argue that it’s to their benefit to be deported to another country,” he says. But two more Israeli-born children of foreign workers were arrested Thursday morning, according to Sigal Rozen, public policy director for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Gena Antigo, left, and her mother Berly waiting outside a courtroom in Tel Aviv, November 1, 2019.Tomer Appelbaum

“It feels like these families are being hunted, and taken out one by one,” says Lesley Benedikt, mother of a third-grader at Gavrieli Ha’Carmel School. The mother of a sixth-grader at the school was arrested today. A protest is being planned by school parents later in the day.  

‘I am human’