ILLEGAL immigrants will no longer be locked up and deported when caught by authorities, in a major softening of immigration procedures.
Instead, people who overstay their visas will be invited into an immigration office and could even get temporary bridging visas.
Immigration officers have been instructed not to detain visa violators unless they are known to be violent criminals or have previously been instructed to leave.
Until last week, illegal foreigners were immediately detained at detention centres and put on planes home within weeks.
The new approach is in line with a general softening of immigration policy by the Rudd Government.
Under the policy, officers are required to issue illegal foreigners with bridging visas and work with them to get them home.
"We basically have to invite them into the office for a coffee," an insider within the department said.
"They can get a couple of weeks or six months, whatever it takes to get them home without detaining them."
Mandatory detention was axed last year, but until now only asylum seekers have been allowed to live in the community.
The new directive from Immigration Minister Chris Evans' office was issued to immigration officers verbally last week.
There are almost 50,000 visa overstayers living illegally in Australia.
More than one in 10 is from China.
Entrants from the US, Malaysia and Britain are also big overstayers.
Most come in on tourist visas, but about 3600 are foreign students who disappear into the community when their course is over.
The Government has also closed down offshore processing facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.
Senator Evans' directive has divided opinion within department ranks, with some fearing the softer approach could send a dangerous message.
"I guess it says people can pretty much do whatever they want now," the insider said.
"They've been caught, but they can stay and go home when they want."
The move could open the floodgates for unwelcome visitors.
"It certainly could be open for exploitation," the insider said. "Prisons are not nice places to be in. Many of these people are not criminals, but I guess it doesn't convey a strong message."
Senator Evans said detention would only be used as a last resort.
"The presumption will be that persons will remain in the community while their immigration status is resolved," he said.
"If a person is complying with immigration processes and is not a risk to the community, then detention in a detention centre cannot be justified.
"The department will have to justify a decision to detain - not presume detention."