- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

PARIS — Aminata Sambou arrived here with a tourist visa four years ago and an immigrant’s yearning for a better future.

This week, the slight, soft-spoken Malian teenager sat in a grim detention center ringed by barbed wire at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport after a court rejected her final appeal to stay.

One foolish move put Miss Sambou, 19, on the front lines of an immigration battle raging in France, as the center-right government makes good on its vow to expel thousands of illegal foreign students using a sweeping new law.

Enacted last month, the legislation favors skilled foreign applicants, while making it harder for longtime aliens to regularize their status.

The legislation has sparked passionate reactions a year ahead of general elections, exposing deep-seated ambivalence toward immigrants.

Poll after poll underscores widespread popular support for tougher immigration policies. Yet many French are troubled by the prospect of deporting young people like Miss Sambou, particularly those born and raised here.

On Monday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy sought to defuse the furor, announcing that 6,000 immigrants would benefit from a one-time-only, case-by-case amnesty — 4,000 more than he previously suggested.

“There won’t be any hunt against children, contrary to what some people claim,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “But people who won’t respond to our criteria are encouraged to leave, either voluntarily or by force.”

Only a few students have been deported, in highly publicized events. The amnesty will cover about a third of those applying for it and only a fraction of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 illegal aliens living here.

Indeed, Mr. Sarkozy said planes deporting illegals soon will leave daily to fulfill his promise of expelling up to 25,000 illegal aliens this year, 5,000 more than in 2005.

“I don’t know what I’d do back in Mali,” Miss Sambou said in an interview shortly before the court’s decision. “I’ll face the same problems I had before.”

As gendarmes paced outside, Miss Sambou described leaving a broken home and bleak future in Bamako, the Malian capital, at age 15. “My mother is old; she couldn’t take care of me.”

In June, Miss Sambou applied for the special immigration waiver, camping outside a suburban police station at 3 a.m. to beat the rush of applicants.

She eventually was given a mid-August appointment to make her case but then made a mistake she now regrets bitterly — getting false working papers to land a summer cleaning job.

Last week, French police caught up with Miss Sambou. They confiscated the fake papers and shipped her to the detention center in a remote corner of the Paris airport, where planes roar just a few yards away.

“For a young girl of 19 years old who is serious about studying, to wipe out four years of her life just for that, it’s just totally disproportionate compared to her crime,” said her math teacher, Nicola Vespa, who visited Miss Sambou this week carrying bags of fruit and cookies.

Emotions are running high across Europe, where soaring numbers of Africans arriving in rickety boats to the Canary Islands and Malta are fueling the immigration debate.

Even as Italy and Spain have legalized hundreds of thousands of aliens, the European Union is mulling a battery of anti-immigration measures, including border guards and patrol boats to scour Africa’s coasts for departures.

Mr. Sarkozy, a presidential hopeful, blames past socialist governments for creating an “immigration time bomb” through sweeping amnesty measures.

“The message was heard around the world,” he told Le Figaro newspaper.

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