Home Office officials have been accused of singling out "soft targets" in their desperation to boost numbers of illegal immigrants removed from the country.
As John Reid, the new Home Secretary, came under fresh pressure over border controls, the Government insisted that increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and other immigrants were being expelled from Britain.
But refugee and immigrant groups report a surge in foreigners who have forged strong links in this country over many years being picked up in raids. There are also increasing numbers of removals of husbands or wives accused of taking part in sham marriages.
Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "The Home Office tend to pick on soft targets, people who comply with requirements to report and who are in work. They often aren't even allowed to return to where they are living to collect private photos or souvenirs."
Maeve Sherlock, the Refugee Council chief executive, said: "The process of who gets removed and who doesn't can be very arbitrary. In too many cases the officials don't seem to chase the hardest cases but instead pick on people who co-operate with the authorities and play by the rules."
Immigration returned to the political centre stage yesterday after Dave Roberts, a senior official in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), admitted he did not have the "faintest idea" how many illegal immigrants were in Britain.
Mr Roberts was also unable to say how many failed asylum-seekers had been told to leave and how many were reporting regularly to the authorities.
His comments caused deep embarrassment in the Home Office and threw Tony Blair on the defensive in the Commons.
Mr Reid admitted it was "disturbing" that the figures were not available, but stressed that data on illegal immigrant numbers had not been collected for at least 15 years.
The Prime Minister also conceded that no one knew how many illegal immigrants were in Britain and insisted identity cards and electronic border controls were the best way to detect them in future. David Cameron, the Tory leader, said Mr Blair was "rattled" and his Government was "in paralysis" after the controversy became the latest to engulf the Home Office.
The Prime Minister also deepened the confusion over his recent promise that there would be an automatic presumption that any foreigner convicted of an imprisonable offence would be deported.
He said yesterday that the measure might not apply to foreigners who had been in the UK for a long time and only served a short jail term. But he then risked a human rights uproar by saying offenders could be returned to countries which "may not be safe".
However, Tony McNulty, the Immigration minister, said later: "There will be, in all fairness, at least in some cases, situations where you cannot deport people because of the parlous state of a particular country."
Home Office ministers - desperate to switch attention from the turmoil in the IND - will next week release figures showing the Government has finally hit Mr Blair's target of deporting more asylum-seekers every month than the number making unfounded claims.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "It is hard to justify the effort spent in removing decent people and their families at a time when serious criminals are not even considered for deportation."
The Home Office denied singling out easy targets for removal. A spokeswoman said: "Removals priorities are set, and one of those should clearly be to remove those who have claimed asylum and have no right to be here.
"Failure to do this would only encourage those who seek to abuse our asylum system. Although removing failed asylum-seekers is a priority, the Immigration Service does not ignore other immigration offenders."
Victims of the new tough stance
The police came for Alejandrina Guard at night. Still in her night clothes, she was bundled into the back of a van and taken to a police cell. Seven days later - and nearly five years after arriving in Britain - she was on a flight back to her native Mexico.
Her husband, Mark, accuses the Home Office of ripping their lives apart to hit deportation targets.
They met in Mexico in 2000. She came to Britain with him and they moved to Petersfield, Hants, as she embarked on a modelling career. Within a year of Alejandrina, 23, arriving on a tourist visa, the couple had married and applied for leave to remain.
Mr Guard, 41, said: She has been treated disgustingly. They have taken her away."
Adnan Kos, who fled Turkey after his father was murdered, has become a stalwart of his local pub's pool team. Mr Kos, 42, has lived and worked full-time in Carlisle for seven years and was planning to marry Viv Keenan, with whom he has a 17-month-old son, Nathan. The couple, who met five years ago, were looking for a larger flat. But his life was turned upside down when immigration officers made an early-morning call in February. They told him his asylum claim had been rejected and he was to be deported. Ms Keenan, 29, said: "He has done everything he was asked to do and has never tried to hide."Reuse content