By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 15, 2006
BOURG-LA-REINE, France -- Eight-year-old Andrianina Ralison's favorite subject is math, his sport of choice is basketball, he loves library books about nature and animals. His second-grade teacher at La Faiencerie Elementary School in this southern Paris suburb describes him as one of the top achievers in her class.
Andrianina, a round-faced boy from Madagascar, is also an illegal immigrant. And under tough new immigration laws, Andrianina -- along with hundreds of other schoolchildren and their parents across France -- is scheduled to be deported to his native country the day after school ends July 4.
"Why don't they want us here?" Holiarisoa Ralison, 31, said her son asked the day she received the deportation order.
Across much of Western Europe, countries fearful of losing their national identities and anxious over struggling economies are seeking new ways to stem explosive growth in immigrant populations. The debates in Europe echo many of those heard in the U.S. Congress.
For now, the political consensus in France is to crack down, and last fall -- as part of tougher new policies -- authorities began pulling immigrant children out of school to be deported with their families. But many teachers, classmates and parents rebelled. Teachers at a school in central France hid students from police, even at the risk of being fined thousands of dollars for helping illegal immigrants.
Other schools went on strike to protest the sudden evictions. Students and teachers staged street demonstrations. Local town halls run by Socialist officials who oppose the government's increasingly hard-line approach supported many of the families in their legal appeals to remain in the country.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, architect of the new assault on illegal immigration, relented and declared a temporary amnesty for families with children in school and agreed not to deport them until the end of the current school year.
Now, with the last days of the school year approaching, teachers and other activists are renewing their campaigns to protect students.
"Kids, teachers and parents are angry with the situation," said Richard Moyon, founder of the Education Without Borders Network, an association of teachers that organizes protests as part of its efforts to assist youngsters threatened with deportation. "One of the roles of a teacher is to teach kids the ideals of the republic -- freedom and equality. How can teachers explain what freedom and equality are when you've got in front of your eyes this kind of example of children seeing their friends deported?"
Following pressure from Moyon's group and sympathetic politicians, the French Interior Ministry on Wednesday issued new guidelines to the local governing authorities that decide whether to grant residency papers to illegal immigrants. Families may be given more favorable consideration if their children have spent at least a year in French schools, were born in France or arrived at a young age and speak French fluently.
The guidelines are advisory only; local authorities are not required to use them.
The French government estimates that illegal immigrants number between 200,000 and 400,000. Officials suggest that at least 50,000 of those are children; advocacy groups say the number of children could total 100,000.
In the past two years, French authorities have stepped up raids on city streets and at subway stations in immigrant neighborhoods, pressured employers to stop hiring illegal workers and rejected larger numbers of applications from illegal immigrants seeking visas.
Deportations have increased by nearly 70 percent, from 11,692 in 2003 to 19,489 last year, according to the Interior Ministry.
Even with the new guidelines issued Wednesday, the fate of the Ralison family remains uncertain.
Holiarisoa Ralison, a woman with a soft voice, cappuccino skin and long, ebony hair, was nabbed April 18 in a police raid at a train station that is a 15-minute walk from the pastel pink apartment building where she lives.
After two hours in the local jail, she was handed a letter and released. "It said I had to be taken to the border," said the mother of two. "I started to cry. I felt like I'd been stabbed, that this was the end for my family if we had to go back to this poor country."
She appealed the decision and appeared before a judge a few days later. "The judge asked if I had anything to say for myself," she recounted. "I said, 'We became outlaws to have better futures for our kids -- not to hurt anybody.' "
She lost the appeal.
In contrast to the United States, where many illegal immigrants slip through porous southwestern borders, or Spain, where thousands of desperate African immigrants have arrived on leaky boats in recent months, most immigrants arrive in France on tourist visas. Like the Ralisons, many were born in former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa where cultural and linguistic ties with France remain. While the United States vigorously screens tourist visas from applicants in developing nations, France historically has been lenient in granting them to citizens of impoverished former colonies.
Nirina Ralison, now 35, arrived at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris from Madagascar in the spring of 2002 with a visa for a three-month internship at a French pharmaceutical laboratory, sponsored by his employer in Madagascar. He never started the internship. Instead, he found a job as a deliveryman and lived in a cramped apartment with six other men.
A year later, he'd saved enough to money to fly his wife, Holiarisoa, to France. She left their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter with her stepmother in Madagascar. A year and a half later, in December 2004, the couple brought their children to France on tourist visas.
They enrolled their son, Andrianina, and later their daughter, Raitrosoa, in local French schools. The French government does not require schoolchildren to have legal residency papers. Holiarisoa found jobs baby-sitting and cleaning houses.
Both parents -- who spoke French before their arrival in France -- took precautions common among illegal immigrants. They always paid for subway and train tickets, never trying to sneak through gates, even when money was short. Nirina worked for multiple employers, in part so he wouldn't be spotted by authorities in the same places or driving the same routes.
"Even without papers, life here is 10 times better than in Madagascar," said Holiarisoa, sitting in the living room of the family's small apartment, where mother, father and two children share the same bedroom -- adults on a lower bunk bed, children in the upper.
In Madagascar, Holiarisoa was an office administrator for a construction company, making about $66 a month. Her husband made about $75 a month working in a pharmaceutical lab. In France, she said, she earns about $875 a month baby-sitting and cleaning houses while her husband brings home about $1,125 a month from his multiple jobs.
But the greatest motivation, she said, was for the children. At home, most youngsters dropped out of school by the time they were 10 or 11 years old, she said.
Now the family lives in daily fear of deportation. "Every time we hear a car stop, we think it's the police coming to get us," she said. "We don't sleep at night. If my husband is late from work, I start panicking."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.