The law must be upheld, but it must be upheld humanely and fairly. The system of enforcing it should never be so callous as to heap indignity upon those being apprehended. Such was clearly not the case on Tuesday when, after a dawn raid, the Mila family were mistakenly deported to Malaysia.

The episode evoked disturbing echoes of the practices embraced by totalitarian regimes. It also revived memories of the brief period a generation ago when New Zealand was scarred by such tactics. Dawn raids on the home of alleged Pacific Island overstayers in the mid-1970s were found to be so objectionable that immigration officials had to quickly "refine" their behaviour. Today, the descent of immigration officials and police on the homes of suspected illegal immigrants in early morning darkness, as happened to the Milas, remains no less objectionable.

The Government had given assurances that this would not happen, of course. When Lianne Dalziel announced a crackdown on overstayers from October 1, she pledged that there would be no return to dawn raids. She gave no indication, however, of the methods that would be used to remove those in New Zealand illegally.

Now, the minister refuses to accept responsibility for the excessive zeal and insensitivity of her officials. Those officials, she told Parliament, had not told her the truth about the timing of the raid.

Such a quirky interpretation of ministerial responsibility amounts to an unacceptable cop-out. The buck always stops with the minister. It was ultimately her responsibility to ensure that the Immigration Service's operating procedures, as dictated by the Government, were foolproof and applied scrupulously.

The Mila family and taxpayers have had to pay the price for political incompetence. Lianne Dalziel was being unfair, as well as constitutionally remiss, in attempting to deflect the blame on to officials. They, of course, have no way of answering back or putting their side of the argument.

The minister has now ruled that raids to remove overstayers will not start before 7 am. The timing of the raid was, however, only part of the problem. The peremptory treatment of the Mila family also helped to confirm fears that the crackdown could easily turn nasty. That provides ammunition for those who find it curiously at odds with the sort of policy expected of a Labour-Alliance Government.

Consider, for example, Lianne Dalziel's appeal last year to Tuariki Delamere, her predecessor as Immigration Minister, for the Schier family to be allowed to remain in New Zealand. Mr Delamere was quite correct to deport Guenther Schier and his family, given that Mr Schier had failed to tell New Zealand immigration authorities of his criminal convictions in Germany, including a jail sentence for drug-dealing. Now, however, Lianne Dalziel remains adamant that her crackdown on overstayers, including the threat of instant deportation, is not too tough.

The minister could maintain, of course, that the Government's policy bends over backwards to give overstayers a fair go. They have come to New Zealand on specific terms and it is not unreasonable to expect those terms to be observed. Lianne Dalziel has given them the opportunity to avoid the crackdown by coming forward before March 30 under a partial amnesty. That amnesty is aimed at "well-settled overstayers" - people who have been living here illegally for five years, people married to or in a de facto relationship with a citizen, or people who have a child born here. Possibly almost a third of the estimated 18,900 to 22,400 overstayers in New Zealand could qualify for the amnesty.

For the other two-thirds, Lianne Dalziel continues to promise a tougher line next year. The Mila episode illustrates, however, that such policies quickly become untenable unless they are enforced with compassion and the utmost care. Further inconvenience or embarrassment to innocent parties will invite increasing condemnation. It is now up to the minister to rein in immigration officials - many of whom will have a considerable chip on their shoulders - and ensure that the law is applied fairly and scrupulously. If it is not, public distaste will demand that she, whatever her protestations, be "deported" from a cabinet hotseat.