- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

PARIS — European governments, facing an immigration debate much like that in the United States, are pulling in the welcome mat, especially for low-skilled, illegal aliens from Africa and other developing regions.

Increasingly, governments are introducing immigration tests and other devices to screen out all but the brightest and most qualified in the face of rising anti-immigration sentiments — despite having an aging population that leaves many European countries in need of new workers to bankroll their welfare states.

“There is a general trend toward regulation and restricting immigration and asylum seekers in particular,” said Daniele Joly, a specialist on immigration issues at the University of Warwick in England. “In appearance at least, the door is closed to immigration. And the discourse of politicians is very hostile to immigration.”

France’s National Assembly last week began debating legislation that would seek to screen out unskilled immigrants while making it harder for illegal aliens to gain residency and for immigrants’ families to settle in France.

The bill’s sponsor, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, argues that the legislation will tamp down rising xenophobia while responding to shortages of skilled laborers. But critics, including churches and leftist politicians, denounce the bill as unjust and mean-spirited.

“It will break up families,” said the Rev. Francis Barjot, parish priest of the St. Hippolyte Roman Catholic Church in southern Paris. The selective-immigration clause, he said, “amounts to pillaging poor countries of their doctors, their professors, when we should be helping them develop.”

Last week, 150 illegal aliens turned up at Father Barjot’s church after being evicted from a state agency they had occupied to protest the immigration bill.

One of those was Akari Coulibali, a chubby 45-year-old Muslim from Mali, who sported a floppy blue hat and jeans as he slurped coffee and described his 16 years as an illegal alien in Paris.

“I left [Mali] because there was no rain,” he said. “I needed to find food for myself and my family.”

In Paris, he has scrounged for work in construction, cleaned houses and emptied trash. But today, he is homeless and, without legal working papers, he has few options.

His plight elicits little sympathy these days in Paris, or in many other European capitals. The Netherlands and the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg have passed new screening tests, while the European Union is mulling an “integration contract” that would require that newcomers share the union’s social and political values.

Spain and Greece have bucked the trend, recently granting amnesty to several million illegal aliens even as they ship many others home. But other countries such as Denmark, with a long history of tolerance toward immigrants, are reversing course.

In France, high unemployment and riots last fall by mainly Muslim immigrants have sharpened the anti-immigrant mood. A rash of surveys show strong support for tighter immigration measures — a course long advocated by the far right.

A poll published Friday in Le Figaro magazine found Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the extremist National Front party, enjoying an 18 percent approval rating — slightly higher than in 2002, when he placed second in presidential elections.

Mr. Le Pen, 77, is now stumping for next year’s race with a new slogan: “France, love it or leave it.”

Anti-immigration sentiments are similarly boosting far-right parties in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and Britain, where the British National Party doubled its number of local council members in elections Thursday.

Still, tough talk in Europe is not always matched by action, specialists say. Britain, for example, issued 400,000 work permits to immigrants last year, said Mrs. Joly, the University of Warwick professor.

“They don’t have the courage to come clean and say: ‘Now the situation has changed. We do need immigrants today,’” she said. “So they bring them in by stealth.”

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