Immigration Amnesty Sows Divisions In France

Immigration amnesty sows division in France
Some call offer inadequate, others say it's too generous
Elizabeth Bryant,
San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service

Friday, July 28, 2006

(07-28) 04:00 PDT Paris — Aminata Sambou arrived here with a tourist visa four years ago and an immigrant's yearning for a better future. On Thursday, the slight, soft-spoken Malian teenager sat at a grim detention center ringed by barbed wire at Charles de Gaulle airport, after a Parisian court rejected her final appeal to remain in France.

A foolish move fast-tracked Sambou, 19, to the front lines of a battle raging in France, as the government makes good on its pledge to expel thousands of illegal foreign students under a sweeping new anti-immigration law.

The French crackdown comes at a time when emotions are running high across Europe, where soaring numbers of Africans arriving in rickety boats in the Canary Islands and Malta on their way to the Continent are fueling the debate.

Even as Italy and Spain have legalized hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreigners, the European Union is mulling a battery of anti-immigration measures, including border guards and patrol boats to scour Africa's coasts for vessels carrying suspected would-be immigrants. In France, the new legislation has sparked passionate reactions a year ahead of general elections, exposing deep-seated ambivalence toward immigrants. Successive polls underscore widespread support for tougher policies. Yet many are troubled at the prospect of deporting youngsters like Sambou, and particularly at expelling those born and raised in France.

Passed last month, the legislation not only seeks to deport illegal immigrants, it makes it harder for many longtime immigrants to legalize their status, while favoring new immigrants with sought-after skills.

On Monday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy sought to defuse the furor, announcing that 6,000 immigrants would benefit from a one-time-only, case-by-case amnesty — 4,000 more than he previously suggested. Sarkozy, a presidential hopeful, blames past Socialist governments for creating an “immigration time bomb” through sweeping amnesty measures.

“There won't be any hunt against children, contrary to what some people claim,” Sarkozy said. “But people who won't respond to our rules are encouraged to leave, either voluntarily or by force.”

To date, only a handful of students have been deported in highly publicized events. The amnesty covers about one-third of those applying for it — and only a fraction of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants living in France.

Indeed, Sarkozy says planes deporting illegal residents will soon leave daily, to fulfill his promise of expelling as many as 25,000 undocumented immigrants this year — 5,000 more than in 2005.

Sambou worries about what will happen to her once she's deported.

“I don't know what I'd do back in Mali,” Sambou said in an interview shortly before the court decision in the detention center's tiny visiting room. “I'll face the same problems I had before.”

As gendarmes paced outside, Sambou described leaving a broken home and bleak future in the capital city of Bamako at the age of 15. “My mother is old — she couldn't take care of me,” she said.

Her adopted home consisted of a crowded two-bedroom apartment she shared with her 38-year-old half-brother, Mahmadou Diourra, and his three children in the working-class Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. Sambou slept in the living room. At her vocational high school, where she was a year shy of graduating, teachers described her as a diligent student.

In June, Sambou applied for amnesty, camping outside a suburban police station at 3 a.m. to beat the rush of applicants. She was eventually given a mid-August appointment to make her case. But then she made a mistake that she now regrets bitterly: obtaining false working papers to land a summer job cleaning offices.

Last week, the French police caught up with her. They confiscated the falsified papers and shipped her to the detention center in a remote corner of the Paris airport, where Sambou hears the constant roar of planes just a few yards away.

“For a young girl of 19 years old who's serious about studying — to wipe out four years of her life just for that — it's just totally disproportionate compared to her crime,” her math teacher, Nicola Vespa, said after visiting Sambou this week with bags of fruit and cookies.

Right-wing politicians like Philippe de Villiers, who heads the Movement for France party, accuse the government of being too soft on illegal immigrants. De Villiers describes Sarkozy's amnesty measure as a “massive legalization of illegal aliens. In June, it was 700. Today 7,000. In September it will probably be 70,000,” he told reporters Monday.

At the same time, leftist politicians denounce the government for being heartless.

“I find it inhumane to tear these young kids away from their classmates and teachers and send them to a country many have never been to, or know only a bit,” said Socialist Party deputy Jack Lang, considered another presidential hopeful. “Besides, it's stupid. France, like other countries, will need their brains in the future.”

Ordinary French citizens express the same conflicting reactions. Some equate the youngsters now threatened with deportation with the ethnic immigrants blamed for last year's riots; to others, they are students, neighbors and classmates at their children's schools.

At Sambou's high school, where at least half the students are from immigrant families, Vespa, the math teacher, says it's hard to get the parents involved.

“There are problems with language and their work schedules,” she said. “Some are also illegal, and don't dare participate.”

Sambou's half-brother, Diourra, is another reluctant participant. After 10 years as an illegal immigrant in France, he was finally granted working papers two years ago. “My situation remains precarious,” he said. “It was hard for me to defend Aminata as strongly as I'd like.

“The idea was for her to continue studying in France until she got her high school diploma,” he said. “After that, she's an adult and can take care of herself. But if she goes back to Africa now, what is she to do?”