Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Immigration: U.S. vs. France

 This is a tale of two countries groping with the complexities of immigration reform.

In France, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a national dialogue on what constitutes a French person's identity. Liberals in the French Parliament oppose his every move.

In the United States, President Barack Obama is quietly securing support from Latinos, in particular, to launch another effort to pass immigration reform and fulfill a campaign promise. Opposition Republicans killed the effort two years ago and there is reason to believe their obstruction will be repeated.

There is a major difference among the immigrant population in the two countries.

In France, they are the estimated three million Muslims who are essentially segregated in isolated conclaves and discouraged by unions and a caste system to assimilate into the culture.

In America, Hispanics represent about 28% of the 300 million population with only the poorest living in barrios while first generation off spring tend to merge into the white culture without overwhelming prejudice.

The difference is most Muslims moved to France legally from former French colonies after the arrival of Turks, Italians, Spaniards and eastern Europeans who were brought in after World War II to rebuild the nation. An estimated 10 million Hispanics now reside in the U.S. illegally looking for jobs Americans didn't want until last year's recession.

France's immigration policy was by design. America's by neglect.

Sarkozy and his immigration minister arranged the debates three months ago following a vote in Switzerland that banned construction of  minarets on mosques. Sarkozy's government also banned girls from wearing burkas and head scarfs in schools. The purpose was a direct charge at Muslims to do more to blend into French society.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson.sought to defend the discussions during a National Assembly recent debate, declaring that "the Republic must, in particular, be interested in the link between immigration and integration and between immigration and national identity."

He was booed and shouted down by left-leaning deputies.

Sarkozy has defended the debate series as a means for the French to let out suppressed feelings about their national identity. "It's by becoming deaf to the cries of the people, indifferent to their difficulties, their feelings, aspirations, that we nourish populism," he wrote in a Paris newspaper. "Nothing would be worse than denial" that the French and Europeans "feel that they are losing their identity."

In his editorial defending the need for the debates, Sarkozy argued that France's national identity relies on the "successful assimilation" of Muslims, through their "discreet" demonstration of their religion.

My brother Lee, a retired professor of international economics, has lived in Europe for about 40 years, the last 30 in Thomery, a small town outside Paris. In an email in response to a reaction about the French debate, he wrote:

There is a fairly high level of polarization among the French.  The left here [like left-wing American liberals] tend to believe the immigrants are suffering from excessive discrimination.  While a lot of truth to this, the story is not so simple. The left wing members of parliament are against anything that the current government is for, or proposes.  Like the split between the Democrats and Repubicans in the US Congress.  So in public it is hard to have a reasonable debate unless it is the Pope preaching to Catholics.  For historical reasons here there is a very strong sentiment for a secular society.  Until about 100 years ago, the Catholic church had more or less of a monopoly [96% of the population], and a fairly strong influence on the government.  The church began to lose its power at the time of the French revolution at the end of the 1700's, and has been fighting a rear-guard action ever since.  Most French call themselves Catholic, but this usually means they are baptized, married, and given last rites by the Church.  In the small towns, there may be more participation.

Catholics count for 85% of the population.  2% to 3% each are Jewish or Protestant, the remaining Muslim. The statistics are not precise because in the census, one does not tick a box to indicate religion. The (Los Angeles Times) article stated half the Muslims are practicing, but that figure is doubtful.  They stand out in the population, at least those who are devout [women] because wearing the burqua covered in black from head to toe with or without much of their face exposed makes them obvious.  Actually one sees so few, that they draw attention.  Head scarves are much more common, though not allowed in school.  Like the orthodox male Jews who dress in black, with a black hat, and long sideburns make them stand out. Many Muslims are making a statement.  Their appearance labels them as different, not of the same culture of their hosts.  It would be unfair to put all in the same pot, but I think a fairly large number, especially the young, are showing these external signs as a form of f--- all of you. The Muslims do have cause for being angry since they are discriminated against.  They tend to live in poor neighborhoods, many only 1 generation away from the boondocks of Algeria or Morocco, primitive customs, poorly educated, and high levels of unemployment.  It is something of a vicious circle.  Poor education, means no jobs or menial ones.  Poor neighborhoods mean more crime, gangs, etc.  Some of the older generation practice old country customs like slitting the throat of a goat or a lamb for their big religious meals [Muslim equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas].  Butchering an animal in an apartment or in the communal garden does not endear them to the non-Muslims in the neighborhood.  

Meanwhile, the Obama administration faces a tough sell with whatever details -- including an amnesty path to citizenship and special workers' visa program -- they offer in a new immigration reform package. The reason is unemployment remaining at 10%.

Republican lawmakers said they remained confident that they could defeat any overhaul proposal. They said it would be political folly for the Obama administration to propose a huge legalization program for illegal immigrants when so many Americans are out of work.

“Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens and legal immigrants is like giving a burglar a key to the house,” said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Even so, the White House apparently has decided to press ahead. The Los Angeles Times:

In an effort to enlist the kind of business support that helped drive its healthcare initiative, for example, administration officials have reached out to the National Restaurant Assn., which represents an industry that employs thousands of immigrants. Earlier this year, the new head of the association, Dawn Sweeney, met with Cecilia Muñoz, a White House aide involved in the issue, and expressed interest in cooperating.

At the same time, the Obama administration has accelerated a Bush administration policy with 169,612 federal prosecutions in 2009, a 9% increase from the previous year in which more than half were for immigration violations, a 16% increase.

The streamline immigration cases have become the low-hanging fruit of the federal legal system: Immigration prosecutions, from inception to court disposal, are lightning quick, according to the (Syracuse Univesity) report. While white-collar prosecutions take an average of 460 days and narcotics cases take 333, the immigration cases are typically disposed of in 2 days. 

And while federal prosecutors decline to prosecute about half of the white-collar cases that are referred to them by law enforcement agencies, they prosecute 97 percent of the immigration cases

That hardly smacks as soft on crime, a charge routinely thrown at Obama by Republicans.

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