London, Nov.24 : Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has raised a storm of sorts by backing a proposal to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said that even those who "come here illegally" must be treated with "respect and justice".
He told BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme: "There is a responsibility for this country to welcome [migrants] and make sure they are supported. I think a lot of the people who come are quite vulnerable and can easily be threatened or exploited."
The Cardinal added that "undocumented" migrants who have been in the UK for years should, "after a certain time ... receive citizenship here and so get the benefits of that".
The Cardinal's comments follow London Mayor Boris Johnson's announcement last week that a study has begun into the possible benefits of an amnesty for the UK's illegal immigrants.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's comments attracted strong criticism.
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migrationwatch UK, said that suggesting an amnesty was "frankly irresponsible".
Green told the Daily Express: "It would add hundreds of thousands to the housing lists, and their families would be allowed to follow them. So the reward for breaking our laws for long enough would be a meal ticket for life."
Migrationwatch UK has estimated that an amnesty would cost taxpayers at least 500 million pounds in extra benefit payments.
There are an estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, with 400,000 thought to be in London.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last week revealed that the country's population has grown by 1.8 million because of immigration since Labour came to power in 1997.