TEL AVIV // Lance Cruzada was born in Israel, has Israeli friends in his Tel Aviv kindergarden and speaks Hebrew better than his Filipina mother’s native tongue.

But that is not enough to persuade the Israeli government to cancel its plan to deport the 4-year-old, and at least 400 other children of migrant workers because they do not meet requirements to stay in the country.

"Every day, I wake up scared that the immigration authorities will come to get us," said Lilia Cruzada, her face grim as she glanced at Lance and his little brother Jaeden, 2, playing in their ramshackle Tel Aviv apartment.

The 34-year-old single mother arrived in Israel to work as a caregiver and housekeeper 13 years ago but has since lost her work permit and is now in the country illegally.

Ms Cruzada has good reason to worry. On Thursday, an Israeli district court spurred panic in the migrant labourer community after it rejected a petition to delay the state’s plan to deport an Israeli-born, four-year-old daughter of an illegal Filipina worker.

The decision was in line with a controversial policy announced by Israel’s government a year ago to deport the children of hundreds of foreign workers’ families, mostly from the Philippines, South America and Africa.

Those children are slated for deportation because they do not fulfil residency criteria that includes having lived in Israel for at least five years, the ability to speak Hebrew and attendence at an Israeli school.

The rules, which came into effect in August 2010, have stirred an emotional debate in Israel.

Critics have argued it was immoral for a country partly founded as a safe haven for Jews to expel children who have known no other home and who are likely to live in extreme poverty should they be moved to their parents’ home countries.

Israel has about 200,000 migrant workers, with at least half of them living in the country illegally, according to official figures.

Activists say many female migrants lost their job permits after becoming pregnant, which was forbidden under an interior ministry regulation that was annulled by the country’s Supreme Court in April.

While Israel grants Jewish immigrants automatic citizenship, it does not have a clear and cohesive policy for non-Jewish migrants.

Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox interior minister who pushed for last year’s regulations to be approved, has called migrant workers a threat to the state’s Jewish character and a danger to increasing assimilation between Jews and non-Jews.

He has also accused foreign labourers of spreading diseases such as Aids, measles and hepatitis, although he has presented no evidence for that assertion.

In March he announced that deportations of children attending Israeli schools or kindergartens would be delayed until the end of the school year in June after facing pressure from opponents.

They included Gideon Saar, the education minister and a top member of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Sara Netanyahu, Mr Netanyahu’s wife and a psychologist by profession, who publicly condemned the plan despite her husband supporting it.

Activists say Thursday’s expulsion of Ofek Castilio, who had attended a municipal kindergarten in Tel Aviv, and her mother, signified that Mr Yishai is now launching the deportations.

The expulsion drew attention because just days beforehand, Ofek and her mother were taken off a Philippines-bound airplane waiting on the runway after a court ordered an 11th-hour stay following an appeal by a civil rights group.

The subsequent deportation was the first of a migrant labourer’s child who was enrolled in an Israeli education institution. In recent months, Israel has expelled some 50 children all aged 3 or younger and mostly cared for at home.

"There is a lot of fear right now - many people are hiding and not coming out of their homes," said Noa Galili, a spokeswoman for Israeli Children, an organisation lobbying for legal status to be granted to foreign workers.

Sabin Hadad, an interior ministry spokeswoman, said the expulsions will now "continue as planned".

"The school year is over so any child who does not fit the criteria could be deported at any time."

Ms Cruzada avoids taking Lance and Jaeden to public playgrounds.

She keeps them mostly enclosed in their home, a rundown one-room apartment with ripped floor tiles, stained walls and no air-conditioner, in which she hung up curtains to separate her bed from those of her sons.

She avoids walking on streets if she spots white minivans - migrants have learned to identify these as belonging to immigration authorities. She is alerted by neighbours if such vehicles are seen outside her home.

Despite her harsh living conditions, she believes that remaining in Israel would mean a better life for her children. "I want to give them what I didn’t have. In the Philippines, earning US$50 [Dh184] per month is considered lucky," said Ms Cruzada, who now earns about US$1,100 a month cleaning homes.

"They are children - they don’t deserve to be deported."