Suella Braverman has been accused of "shameless populist dog whistling" after she said immigration lawyers who help migrants "cheat the system" should be jailed.
In an interview with the Mail On Sunday, the home secretary said there is a "racket" of "people who are purporting to be professional, purporting to be legitimate, but actually under the surface are lying or cheating and breaking the law".
It comes after an undercover investigation by the Daily Mail reportedly found lawyers had assisted people to make false asylum claims, prompting the solicitors watchdog to shut down three firms.
Braverman said: "These so-called immigration lawyers, who have been very powerfully exposed as being criminals and conmen, coaching migrants on how to lie to get through our system, how to game our system, how to play our rules, they are cheating the British people."
However, refugee rights campaigners and lawyers have said Braverman has gone too far with her rhetoric after calling for a "hostile environment" against the lawyers in question.
Meanwhile in the Sunday Express, she accused Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer of using a "web of cronies" to "sabotage" her plans to stop small boat crossings across the English Channel.
It follows reports that a lawyer advising Sir Keir on Labour's general election manifesto is also a leading figure in a pressure group fighting the Rwanda deportation scheme.
Braverman's comments this weekend have prompted concerns from Jacqueline McKenzie, head of immigration and asylum law at legal firm Leigh Day, who told Sky News: "It's really worrying because this is endangering.
"I'm someone who gets quite a lot of hate mail. One of my colleagues has already had a physical attack, and somebody is on trial for an attempted murder of him.
"And yet the government think it's okay to target individual lawyers who are simply doing their job, it is unacceptable, it's almost difficult to understand how anyone can think this is a rational thing to do."
Clearly any lawyer who’s acted unlawfully or unprofessionally shd be dealt with properly, but by simultaneously attacking people who are rightly doing their job in challenging the govt, the Tories are sending a signal that everyone is as bad as the othershttps://t.co/dRCnxhYDmS
— Alasdair Mackenzie 🧡 (@AlasdairMack66) August 6, 2023
Daniel Sohege, Director of human rights advocacy organisation Stand for All tweeted: "We have already seen immigration lawyers attacked because of this government's rhetoric.
"The Home Secretary knows her words risk putting people's lives in danger, yet continues to spew hateful bile for political gain."
He added: "Very dangerous language from the Home Secretary. We have a government currently claiming the fire brigade are enemies of the people.
"They accuse those fighting to uphold the law of 'cheating the system' as much as they do those undermining it. This risks attacks on lawyers."
Watch: Immigration minister Robert Jenrick says Rwanda scheme is "critical" deterrent to stop Channel Crossings
Sohege appeared to be referring to deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden suggesting that the Fire Brigades Union had raised safety concerns over the Bibby Stockholm asylum seeker barge due to an affiliation with Labour.
Also weighing in on Braverman's remarks this weekend was anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who said: "Don't let Suella Braverman's shameless populist dog whistling hide that it's 13 years of #Tory failure that has resulted in broken Britian and the broken asylum system."
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She later added: "Following on from my tweet about Suella Braverman's toxic rhetoric today, it's baffling and hugely disappointed to hear Labour saying they won't repel the inhumane Illegal Immigration Act that received Royal assent in July, or propose pragmatic, well-thought out solutions and better use of our public money."
Last month the Bar Council accused prime minister Rishi Sunak of undermining trust in the legal profession by suggesting a “subset of lawyers” were exploiting illegal migrants for profit.
The PM tweeted: “The Labour Party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs – they’re all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.”
Responding to Sunak, Bar Council vice-chair Sam Townend KC said: “Lawyers are not beyond reproach, and all professions have individuals who commit misconduct and are dishonest. Regulators are there to discipline them.
“The comments by the prime minister, however, are clearly an attempt to play politics with the legal profession. This damaging rhetoric undermines the rule of law, trust in lawyers and confidence in the UK legal system and is to be deplored.”