Suella Braverman has been accused of striking up a “xenophobic and racist fire” after saying people arriving in the UK in small boats have values which are “at odds with our country”.
The home secretary was facing a backlash to her remarks as government’s controversial immigration legislation cleared the Commons.
She also failed to offer statistical evidence to back her claim that migrants crossing the English Channel are linked to “heightened levels of criminality”.
Braverman said: “I think that the people coming here illegally do possess values which are at odds with our country.”
Asked later whether she had figures to support the crime statement, she said it was based on information she had gathered from police chiefs.
At an event later in Westminster, she added: “Not in all cases, but it is becoming a notable feature of everyday crime-fighting in England and Wales.
“Many people are coming here illegally and they’re getting very quickly involved in the drugs trade, in other forms of exploitation.”
Asked whether that claim was based on empirical evidence, she said: “I consider police chiefs experts in their field and authoritative sources of information.”
Even an outspoken right-wing Tory MP criticised the comments on values.
Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North Jonathan Gullis told LBC they were not “appropriate” or “reasonable”.
He said: “I don’t feel comfortable with the mentioning of the values. I don’t think that was appropriate, nor was it right.”
Labour condemned Braverman’s comments about migrants’ values, with a spokesman calling it the “sort of invective” that signals that the policies being promoted “have failed”.
Campaigners accused her of “pouring petrol on a xenophobic and racist fire they (the government) themselves have lit”.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “Suella Braverman’s dog-whistle remarks about the ‘values’ of migrants being ‘at odds’ with British ‘norms’ are appallingly divisive and shamelessly intended to stoke fear and hatred of people seeking refuge in this country.
“No-one should suffer such blatant exposure to prejudice and hostility, especially not in the form of highly insensitive remarks from the Home Secretary.
“The government’s draconian asylum legislation is already set to tear apart legal protections in this country for refugees, victims of human trafficking and many other people, while Suella Braverman continues pouring petrol on a xenophobic and racist fire they themselves have lit.”
It came as senior backbench Tories, including former prime minister Theresa May and ex-party leader Iain Duncan Smith, voiced concerns inpParliament about the impact the government’s flagship immigration reforms could have on modern slavery protections.
But the bill cleared the House of Commons without any drama in the votes after MPs gave it a third reading by 289 votes to 230, majority 59.
The illegal migration bill will change the law so people who arrive in the UK illegally will be detained and then promptly removed, either to their home country or a safe third country such as Rwanda.
Critics of the Bill have dismissed the proposed legislation as unworkable, while right-wing Tory MPs believe it does not go far enough.
Other Tories want greater protections for minors and victims of human trafficking.