French Considers Tough Immigration Bill
PARIS – The curtain falls on a bevy of near-naked dancers in feathered headdresses, and Adir Rafael Pires glides into action.
As a set-changer at the Lido, the racy cabaret on Paris' Champs-Elysees, Pires could not be farther from his desert birthplace: Cape Verde, a rocky, drought-stricken archipelago off West Africa's coast.
But the door that allowed Pires to make France his home may now be closing. France, like other European countries, is taking a harder look at the immigrants it lets in.
The drive toward "selective" immigration is inspired by electoral politics, by fears that some immigrants are not integrating and may even be vectors for terrorism and militant Islam, and by widely shared concerns that immigrants overtax welfare systems and compete for scarce jobs.
French Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy championed a bill that would make it more difficult for poor immigrants with little education and few skills to start a new life in France — long one of Europe's most coveted destinations for immigrants.
Pires, 24, reached the ultimate goal — acquiring French nationality — at a naturalization ceremony last month after spending more than half his life here — much of it as an illegal immigrant.
Hi mother, Vitalina, came to France in 1990 on a tourist visa, then stayed on as a live-in maid with a Parisian family. Pires visited her for summer vacation, and never returned to Cape Verde.
Nearly sixteen years later, mother and son became French thanks to a provision that allows foreigners to apply for citizenship after 10 years in the country — even if they were here illegally.
That is one of many immigrant-friendly provisions that would be scrapped under Sarkozy's immigration bill.
Sarkozy, whose father immigrated here from Hungary, argues that France should take a more pro-active approach to immigration by hand-picking foreign workers. His arguments gained resonance after riots ripped through heavily immigrant French suburbs last fall.
Sarkozy acknowledges that he wants to court voters away from the far right, which argued that the riots showed the perils of immigration.
If passed, the law would form part of France's multi-pronged offensive against clandestine immigration that also includes stepped-up border controls and deportations. Under Sarkozy, deportations have increased 72 percent over the past two years, with a record 20,000 illegal immigrants expelled in 2005.
"France cannot be the only country in the world that refuses to adapt its immigration policy to its economic needs and its capacity to absorb new arrivals," Sarkozy said recently. "We cannot continue to welcome people whom we have neither jobs nor housing to offer."
Pires spent most of his first year in France in a cramped apartment he shared with one of his mother's friends. He did not attend school, but learned French from watching daytime television. He saw his mother on weekends.
When another friend offered Vitalina an unheated attic room, mother and son moved in together. They shared the kitchen-less, 110-square-foot room for nearly seven years.
Still, it was a step up from Sao Vicente, one of nine desert islands that make up the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde and the one where Pires was born. The country's economy relies largely on foreign aid and remittances from emigrants — which accounted for more than 20 percent of the GDP in 2005.
Pires does not send money back. There is no one left to send it to. After he and Vitalina left, Pires' estranged father decamped, too. He now lives in Amsterdam, and has become a Dutch citizen. Most of Pires' other relatives live in Europe or Brazil.
Under Sarkozy's draft bill, foreigners would have a harder time bringing their families to France. Immigrants would have to prove that their salaries alone — and not government subsidies — suffice to support their offspring.
Pires says that if his mother had been subjected to such stringent requirements, she wouldn't have made the cut.
"Her salary was really low," he said.
Sponsored by his mother's French friend, Pires enrolled in school.
After a teacher told him he "wasn't college material," he opted to attend a technical high school where he specialized in operating theater sets. That led to the job at the Lido, where long-legged dancers cancan, nude but for strategically placed feathers.
"Here, I have the life of an average European — which I finally am," he said.
While it would target people like Pires and Vitalina, the immigration bill would favor a new breed of "highly qualified" workers who — with their higher degrees and sought-after skills — could just as easily move to New York or Toronto as Paris.
"'Highly qualified' is just a code word for rich," Pires said. He called a provision that would establish a renewable, three-year residence permit based on capacity and talent "a ploy to keep out the poor."
"Immigrant labor rebuilt this country after the war," he said. "It's not right to try to exclude us now."