Activists Work to Help Illegal Immigrants in France
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.
LUKE BURBANK, host:
And I'm Luke Burbank. With presidential elections less than two months away in France, things are heating up for the two main candidates. One of the key issues is immigration, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, recently called for help for immigrants, saying, quote, "immigration presents the possibility of bringing in new skills, new talents, new blood."
CHADWICK: But, looming over many illegal immigrants is the threat of deportation. Recently across France, parents and children, teachers and politicians have been remembering and talking about deportations.
BURBANK: And there's a new semi-underground movement that aims to save families from being deported to war-torn homelands. Often they hide the children to stop the deportations. Frank Browning has this report form Paris. And this note: in this report only first names are used to prevent police reprisals.
FRANK BROWNING: My contact from the activists from Education without Borders told me to wait on the sidewalk, just past the Place de Terre(ph) on the south side of Paris. Two men with a car full of toys and books were to pick me up at 9:15 in the morning.
(Soundbite of horn honking)
BROWNING: Hugh(ph), a composer and parent, waved to me. His fellow activist, a Sorbonne professor, drove through winding industrial streets. We came to a residence hall populated largely by minorities. There we met Sayeed. Sayeed had been arrested just before Christmas. He was out shopping for baby supplies when police stopped him. Identity checks are common in this mostly black neighborhood. Sayeed carried no papers, but he was pushing a baby stroller filled with Pampers. Hugh picks up the story.
HUGH: And they went to the police station and they said, oh, do you want that we bring the Pampers to your family? You know? And stupidly he said yes so they went and bring the Pampers but also search all the apartment for the passport. So that's how they got his address. And then they came a second time with the father with handcuffs in front of the little child to search again the apartment, but night, like 9:00, 10:00 o'clock at night, so they woke up the baby, you know - it's not very nice.
BROWNING: Hugh and the activist network are working to stop the family's deportation. Sayeed's case is on appeal. But even so, police can arrest them whenever they want.
HUGH: So it's just because they, they didn't have the passports. They couldn't put him in the plane.
BROWNING: If police come again, they won't find the family's passports.
HUG: His passport is not anymore in his home. That's all I can say. Some of us have the passports. So even if they go to the place and really search in all the apartment, they will never find it.
BROWNING: Without passports they cannot be deported. France stepped up the deportations last spring when interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy made illegal immigration a key plank in his presidential campaign. At first Sarkozy said illegals could stay if they showed a real effort to integrate into French society and if their kids were in school or had been born here. Then when some 23,000 families registered, including some 50,000 children, Sarkozy cut off the number at 6,000 families. Police started seizing kids in classrooms. That led some Education without Borders activists to tougher tactics - sometimes airport disruptions, or hiding passports, even hiding children. In many towns elected officials have now begun staging civil godparenting adoptions to support illegal immigrants.
MARTINE: My name is Martine so we've got three children and they come from Turkey.
BROWNING: Martine, a parent and teacher in the small town of Mangaley Martinque(ph), is one of those godparents. She and several other activists came to the town hall one blustery January day to register as godparents for several immigrant families on deportations lists.
MARTINE: They are Kurds with their mother. They came here so that one of us could look after them in case they are expelled from France. Then it's just to want to make sure that these people could not be expelled just like that without anyone doing anything. We just want to show them that they are welcome to live in France.
BROWNING: A half dozen mayors and elected officials from nearby towns crowded into the town hall with 50 others. Some from Congo, some from Guinea, others from Turkey and Azerbaijan, to hear the mayor of Mangaley Martinque open the ceremony.
Unidentified Man (Mayor): (Through translator) Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. It is in light of that fact, inherited from the fathers of the French Revolution, that we give meaning to our first for liberty, equality, and fraternity.
BROWNING: Quoting from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the mayor and other elected officials condemned the deportations. Eleven immigrant families - men, women, and children - some fighting back tears - came forward with the locals to sign the civic parenting agreements.
The agreements carry no legal weight, but they are beginning to carry political charge and to attract media attention. For the moment, the activists say the deportations seem to have declined. And often, especially in the countryside, local parents and teachers have taken to hiding children from the police. One teacher named Michel, who has hidden several immigrant, children spoke of why he does it.
MICHEL: (Through translator) We take the child from his father, we put him in a family, he goes to school every day so we're sure that he won't miss any lesson, and this is the way we do. Put him in a family so that he's safe from the policeman.
BROWNING: Separating the children from the family nearly always stops the deportation.
MICHEL (Through translator): Actually in France, if you don't expel the whole family, you have no right to expel, for instance, the parents without their children or the children without their parents. You have to expel the whole family.
BROWNING: While the flood of illegal immigration into Europe has become a provocative issue in France as well as many other countries, candidate Sarkozy's expulsion orders have also brought widespread condemnation from both right and left. Keeping foreigners out is one thing, but police packing off schoolchildren recalls for many the dark images of kids being sent away on trains during World War II. And for parents like Hugh and Martine and Michel, these deportations also seem like a betrayal of their fundamental French republican heritage.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.