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Immigration Debate Stirring on Both Sides of Atlantic


The immigration debate is heating up on both sides of the Atlantic, pitting advocates for legalizing illegal immigrants against those who support stronger anti-immigration measures. In the United States, more than a million people marched last week to demand greater immigrant rights. The welcome mat is vanishing for immigrants in large parts of Western Europe, at least for low-skilled foreign workers, living in the region illegally.

At breakfast for the homeless at Saint Hippolyte Roman Catholic church in Paris, Algerian immigrant Amirouche Laradjane munches on a thick slice of bread as he discusses new French legislation aimed at tightening immigration rules.

Laradjane, who has been living illegally in France for the past three years, calls the draft bill shameful. He says France's center-right government is fascist. And he says the bill's author, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is of Hungarian extraction, had forgotten his own immigrant roots.

The immigration legislation is now being examined by France's parliament. If passed, it would make it harder for illegal foreigners like Laradjane to gain residency, and for families of immigrants to settle here. The bill also aims to select out highly skilled workers from blue-collared ones like Laradjane, who works in construction.

Sarkozy says the bill will reduce rising anti-immigration sentiments in France, while also responding to skilled labor shortages in certain economic sectors. He describes the legislation as balanced and just.

But critics call the bill mean-spirited and unfair. Christian churches have taken a leading role in demanding the legislation be softened. Clerics like Francis Barjot, parish priest at Saint Hippolyte, worry about the future of illegal immigrants in France.

Father Barjot believes the legislation will pass. He fears that in a few years France will enact even tougher legislation against illegal immigrants, forcing them to sink even further in the shadows.

Many French churches have offered shelter to these illegal immigrants, including Saint Hippolyte, located in a heavily Chinese neighborhood in southern Paris. Last week, 150 foreigners came there to seek a place to stay, and to air their protests against the immigration legislation. Father Barjot took them in, offering a bed to some and free breakfast to everyone.

As he sipped a large bowl of coffee and milk, Bakari Coulibali, 45, said he was grateful for the church's generosity.

I thank these Christians, says Coulibali, who is a Muslim from Bamako, Mali. In the morning, we all get coffee and a piece of bread. What do we have besides this, he asks? Nothing.

A one-time farmer outside Bamako, Coulibali emigrated to France 16 years ago, hoping to find a better job and life. He has found work here and there -- in construction, cleaning houses, emptying trash. But today, Coulibali is homeless and without legal working papers, his future is bleak.

"I want legal papers to work like everyone else," he said. "We want our papers."

France is not alone in trying to select out its immigrants. Increasingly, experts say, European governments are introducing new immigration tests and other screening devices to attract only the brightest and most qualified workers. In principle at least, the attitudes toward unqualified and illegal foreigners is hardening, says Daniele Joly, head of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, at the University of Warwick, in England.

"There is a general trend of regulating and restricting immigration, and in particular asylum [seekers]," she said. "But also illegal immigration. The door, in appearance, is closed to immigration and the discourse of politicians is very hostile to immigration."

The Netherlands and Germany have passed new screening tests to draw in skilled workers and those who share their social and political values. The European Union is also considering a similar integration contract.

Spain and Greece have granted amnesty to several million illegal immigrants, but they continue to ship many others home. Even countries like Denmark, with a history of openness toward immigrants, are closing up their borders.

Unlike the United States, fear of tighter immigration restrictions has not sparked massive rallies in Europe. Han Entzinger, an immigration expert at Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, explains why.

"Illegal immigrants are very poorly organized, almost by definition. And no one takes an interest in them," he said. "This has to do with general anti-immigration feelings. It's very difficult to find an organization that defends the rights of illegal immigrants."

In France, high unemployment and last autumn's riots by ethnic immigrant youths have sharpened anti-immigration sentiments. Many recent surveys show strong support for tighter immigration measures, the bread and butter rhetoric of the far right.

Indeed, a poll published Friday in Le Figaro magazine found Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front party, coasting on an 18 percent approval rating -- slightly higher than in 2002, when he placed second in French presidential elections. Le Pen, 77, is now stumping for next years presidential race with a new slogan: "France, Love It or Leave It."

Sarkozy, another presidential hopeful, is also borrowing some of Le Pen's rhetoric, experts say.

Anti-immigration sentiments are similarly feeding far-right parties in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and Britain -- where the British National Party doubled its number of local councilors in English elections Thursday.

Still, immigration experts like Daniele Joly say the tough talk in Europe is not always matched by action. Britain, for example, delivered 400,000 work permits to immigrants last year alone. At the end of the day, she says, European politicians and economists realize, with the continent's population declining, they need more immigration, including unskilled workers.

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