Moved by plight, French shelter illegals

With a reprieve on deportation expiring July 4, citizens rally to hide families.

Hakun Bingolbali, a rambunctious 6-year-old born in the Kurdish region of southeast Turkey, says he is French, no question about it.

He does not know that his parents are living in France illegally, that the authorities want to deport them, and that one reason they keep changing apartments is to avoid the police. What he knows is that he is surrounded by friends.

"We have a lot of people who help us," said the little boy, chattering away in fluent French despite the purple lollipop lodged in his mouth. "They like us to live here."

Like dozens, perhaps hundreds, of illegal immigrant families across France, the Bingolbalis – mother, father, Hakun, and twin 3-year-old boys – have been adopted by a circle of neighbors, strangers, and activists who say they are ready to hide them, if necessary, to prevent the government from sending them away.

At a time when the French parliament is in the final stages of drafting a tough new immigration law and French politicians worry openly about assimilating even legal immigrants, the plight of such families has drawn ordinarily apolitical people into a volatile national debate.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to step up the number of deportations to 25,000 this year as part of a drive to better police the country's borders and control immigration. Last fall, in the face of highly publicized protests over the forced removal of some students, he offered to hold off deporting families with schoolchildren, but said the respite would end when the school year came to a close July 4.

With that deadline approaching, the French press has been full of stories of middle-class families, farmers, and schoolteachers rallying around immigrant children whose parents face deportation.

In some cases, the children have been shifted secretly from safe house to safe house after school.

In other places like Nantes, a port city on the Atlantic coast, the volunteers have opted to publicize the situation of such children as a way to prick the public conscience, although sheltering an illegal immigrant is against the law.

"I don't mind going to prison – it would be an experience," said Marie Katrin Leray-Louet, a Nantes widow who has volunteered to help Hakun's family. "The main thing, though, is that I want to give physical and moral support to the family. You can't live as an egoist."

The effort to pair immigrants with sponsors has garnered attention, but doesn't constitute a mass movement in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Opinion polls regularly show that a majority of French people, regardless of their political leanings, favor tighter immigration rules, and many of the volunteers said they have no illusions of changing anti-immigrant attitudes.

But through a combination of demonstrations, sympathetic media coverage, and political savvy, the sanctuary movement has managed to at least temporarily put a human face on the issue at a time when presidential hopefuls like Mr. Sarkozy, on both the right and the left, are trying to burnish their law-and-order image.

"For 15 years, we've had propaganda from the extreme right that immigrants are responsible for AIDS, for crime, for unemployment," says Richard Moyon, a teacher in the Paris suburbs who has rallied schools to protect and help students threatened with expulsion. "But it really opens peoples' eyes when they realize that the illegal immigrants are the school pals of their children. Then they want to help."

Although there are no firm statistics, the government estimates that some 200,000 to 400,000 foreigners are living illegally in France. Mr. Moyon, who founded a network of teachers called Education Without Borders, said that number includes at least 50,000 children who were either born in France or slipped into the country with one or both parents.

While children under the age of 18 do not have to have formal residence permits, the police have generally tried to deport youngsters along with their older relatives. Mr. Sarkozy has said that prefects in each French region, who represent the state, should evaluate each family deportation on a case by case basis, taking into account whether the family's children have regularly attended school in France. Earlier this month, he also instructed prefects to raise the one-time compensation offered to illegal immigrants in return for leaving voluntarily. Couples can now receive up to 7,000 euros ($8,800), and an additional 2,000 euros ($2,500) per child.

The prefects' discretion in immigration cases has meant that grass-roots activists have been able to mobilize public opinion – or at least the media – to block some deportations.

In Nantes, for example, activists say that no child and no family in its entirety has been deported in the last two years.

"The prefect here warned us that if we went to the media with our cases, we'd never get the families legalized," says Frederic Cherki, a teacher who has organized sit-ins to help immigrants get housing and now matches volunteers with families at risk of deportation. "But we found that wasn't the case at all."

On Tuesday alone, Mr. Cherki received 40 calls or e-mails from people offering to help the estimated 100 illegal immigrant families living in Nantes. Fifty-five of those families have already been paired with volunteers.

Other leaders of the volunteer movement have tried to draw a parallel between helping immigrant families in today's France and hiding Jewish children threatened with death in World War II.

"One reason why there's been such a good response to our efforts to help immigrant schoolchildren is because of our history," says Mr. Moyon. "We are very careful when we make such comparisons, because the threat in the past was genocide. But it's only natural that people ask themselves what they would have done then if a Jewish child in front of them was at risk of being rounded up."

Giles Gelgon, a Nantes actor and playwright who volunteered to help an illegal immigrant family, says he thought of that analogy himself. "This is a lot less dangerous than it was to take in a Jewish family in the war," Mr. Gelgon says. Noting that relatively few French people did so 60 years ago, he adds, "And maybe it's because of that, that we are doing this now."

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