An Afternoon In Paris As An Illegal Immigrant

From expelling hundreds of Roma this summer to passing an immigration bill that critics call "harsh and discriminatory," France has been working out its conflicting attitudes toward immigrants on a very public stage. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, an American living in Paris, recently had her own brush with French immigration authorities and sent us this essay.

It's not often that you get to experience the world you've been reporting on from the inside. But during these days of crackdowns and deportations, I had some of my own immigration problems. For reasons that I won't bother going into, my visa expired, and I became illegal.

Because of the lapse, I had to start over again in applying for my permit to live in France. And that's how I found myself, one sunny October afternoon, in a room full of foreigners at the Paris prefecture of police.

I looked around the room at the sampling of people from across the globe. A young Russian mother shushed her sassy toddler. A couple from Southeast Asia hugged a cooing baby. To get this far, we had all provided a slew of paperwork — including birth certificates, school diplomas, job contracts and apartment leases.

After a cheery welcome, we were shown a film about French life, full of happy citizens and beauty shots of the French countryside.  We learned the principals of liberty, egality, fraternity and secularism. One scene showed women working. "In France, women don't need permission from husbands, fathers or brothers to work — or do anything else," the narrator reminded us.

While waiting my turn for a medical exam, I thumbed through brochures on the illegality of forced marriage and female circumcision.

Many of the personnel who processed us were immigrants themselves. I was led into a small office where a cheerful-faced woman held my file in her hand. "We're the same age," she told me. Looking at my birth certificate, she asked if Madison, Wis., was the Madison from The Bridges of Madison County.

We were soon talking about how much we had both cried watching the movie. The immigration officer, whose name was Victoria, told me she had met a Frenchman in her native China 20 years ago. She, too, was raising children in an adopted land. Victoria said she was happy in France, but it was still very hard sometimes.

Despite the recent uproar over the treatment of Roma, France remains a beacon for immigrants and a nation built on immigration. France accepts the highest number of asylum-seekers after the U.S., and a quarter of French citizens have a foreign-born parent or grandparent, just like President Sarkozy.

Today, newcomers must learn French and are obliged to sign a contract swearing they'll uphold the values of the French Republic. Immigrants can be required to take instruction in certain topics. For those whose language skills are lacking, the state pays for 280 hours of French classes — not a bad deal! The one course no one gets out of is a full day learning about French civics. Mine is in November, and this being France, a hot lunch is included.

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