LONDON - Migrants found working illegally in England and Wales face up to six months in prison and could have their wages seized under proposals announced by the British government on Tuesday.
The proposals come with the centre-right Conservative government under pressure to show it is in control of immigration, one of the most sensitive topics in British politics, after increased attempts by migrants to reach England by crossing the Channel from France.
"Anyone who thinks the UK is a soft touch should be in no doubt - if you are here illegally, we will take action to stop you from working, renting a flat, opening a bank account or driving a car," immigration minister James Brokenshire said in a statement.
"Illegal workers will face the prospect of a prison term and rogue employers could have their businesses closed, have their licences removed, or face prosecution if they continue to flout the law." After serving their jail term, the illegal migrants will be moved to a detention centre awaiting deportation, but the government hopes that the prospect of a spell behind bars beforehand will prove to be even more of a deterrent.
"More important is for the message to go out that if you are here illegally and caught working, you and your employer will end up in court," said Alp Mehmet, of Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for tighter immigration restrictions.
Josephine Goube from pro-immigrant charity Migreat criticised the announcement, saying that "putting illegal immigrants in prison is to get votes" rather than to tackle the problem.
Anti-mass immigration party UKIP also said the measure was politically motivated ahead of the release of Britain's official annual net migration figures.
"Sending illegally working immigrants to jail will cost a fortune and put huge pressure on the prison system," said UKIP migration spokesman Steven Woolfe.
"Instead the government should deport them."
Employers face 5 years in jail
The Immigration Bill, which Prime Minister David Cameron's government is to introduce this year, will allow for pubs, takeaway food outlets and off-licenses to have their licenses revoked if they are found to employ people who lack permission to work in Britain.
The government previously announced that the law would also allow for wages earned by people working illegally to be seized as proceeds of crime.
Banks would have to check accounts against migrant databases, and under the legislation, landlords would be expected to evict tenants whose requests for asylum fail. Employers of illegal workers face fines and an increased maximum prison term of five years.
The government hopes the law will make it easier to prosecute those who knowingly employ illegal workers.
Cameron failed to meet a promise to cut net migration to Britain under his previous term as prime minister, and is expected to come under renewed scrutiny with the release of the latest official migration statistics on Thursday.
There are no official statistics on how many illegal immigrants are in Britain, but it is believed to be around 500,000.
The issue has hit the headlines in recent months with the spike in number of those trying to access the Channel Tunnel at the French port of Calais to enter Britain illegally.