LONDON (AP) — Britain's equality watchdog said Friday it would investigate the government for possible unlawful discrimination after a campaign against immigration violators that saw people detained at workplaces and transit stations.
The Home Office this week took to Twitter to tout the arrest of 139 people, using the hashtag immigrationoffenders.
The tweets sparked a backlash from critics, who pointed out that those detained were suspects, not convicted offenders.
Part of the operation involved U.K. Border Agency officials stationed outside London subway stations conducting checks on some commuters. Several witnesses said the border agents appeared to stop only non-white people.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said it would be "examining the powers used and the justification" for the immigration checks "in order to assess whether unlawful discrimination took place."
Labour Party immigration spokesman Chris Bryant called on the government to offer "immediate reassurance" that people were not being stopped on the basis of ethnicity.
A Home Office spokesman insisted the immigration checks were "intelligence-led" and not based on "appearance, race, color, ethnic origin or nationality."
Immigration Minister Mark Harper said the spot checks were a legitimate part of operations "to remove people who have no right to be in this country."
"Recent street operations in London were intelligence-led and involved immigration officers talking to people in the local area and, where there was a reason to do so, asking questions in relation to immigration status," he said.
"Although we do not often run these kinds of operations, it is not a new way of working. We have used these tactics effectively over many years."
The equality watchdog said it also would look at a government pilot project in which signs were driven around London advising people who did not have visas to "Go home, or you'll be picked up and deported."
Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, one of Britain's biggest trade unions, branded the billboards "vile," and the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London has hired lawyers to mount a court challenge if the ad campaign is not dropped.
Opponents accuse Britain's Conservative-led government of trying to look tough on immigration in response to a threat from the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which has wooed some Conservative voters with its Euroskeptic stance.
Simon Woolley of campaign group Operation Black Vote condemned the spot checks and the ads as "crass."
"What we are seeing here is a demonization which doesn't deal with illegal immigration," he told the BBC. "People want that dealt with, but not in a way that demonizes people for no other reason than their color."