Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Immigration and Access to Education in France

March 12, 2007, Paris, France.


Patrick Weil, Center for the Study of Immigration, Integration, and Citizenship Policies, and Ghislaine Hudson, principal, Dammerie-les-lys high school.

About immigration:
Since the 188os, France has admitted immigrants and now almost 20% of the French have grandparents who are immigrants who came from Europe, the former colonies, and Africa. Even so, France has not always embraced immigrants. In the 1980s, there was a political candidate who wanted to deport legal immigrants.

The speakers defined immigrants as people born in a different country and said that France receives 150,000 legal immigrants a year. 60% come for family reunification, 25% are undocumented immigrants who become documented, 10% are refugees, and 10% are workers.

In France, there is a statute of limitations on illegal immigration, just as there is a statute of limitations for other crimes. So, an undocumented immigrant can become legal is they have been in France for 10 years, or if they have created family ties in France that would suffer greatly if deported. About 30,000 to 35,000 people a year are legalized in this manner. I personally think it would be a great model to use the US.

A current French presidential candidate wants to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. This was controversial because it says that national identity is based on immigrant origin and not on French culture, however that is defined.

We see that controversy in the US, where many Americans want newcomers to drop their old culture and put on the new "American" culture. But what is the "American" culture and who gets to define it? Culture is also a dynamic phenomenon, constantly changing (like our technology), being changed by us and changing us in an endless feedback loop.

About education:
In the French educational system, at 16 years old, students are tracked into either the classical education track (college-bound) or vocational. This is based on test scores and it's almost impossible to switch from one track to another. The goal of education is to pass the exit exam and about 60% pass, the rest drop out.

In Ms. Hudson's school, 15% of the classical track students are low-income and are over represented by immigrants. This brings to mind the image of Asian Americans as the academically overachieving model minority. In the vocational track on the other hand, 60% of the students are low-income and/or immigrants.

The French are very passionate about education. The mission is to transmit knowledge and the values of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity). The public schools are free and the private schools are affordable because they are subsidized by the government.

The education system is highly centralized and teachers not only have college degrees but also 5 years of additional training. Teachers are appointed to schools so the quality of education is consistent nationwide. How different from the US where each school district recruits in own teachers, and school districts are funded by local property taxes, reflecting the income disparity of the country.

Immigration and education come to a head when immigrant students graduate from school, having absorbed all the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and then can't find a job because of racism and lack of connections. This is true of students graduating from either the classical or vocational track. In the vocational track the discrimination comes earlier, when students must perform an internship.

The colleges use affirmative action, based on merit, and now low-income, ethnic minority, and other disadvantaged groups are attending college in increasing numbers. However the discrimination in the society at large will still make finding employment difficult.

Ms. Hudson and Mr. Weil both served on a commission to separate religion and school. Twenty-five recommendations were made, but only one, the ban on headscarves, was enforced. Interestingly, the French school calendar is based on Catholic holidays.

Mr. Weil supports a policy similar to the Texas 10% plan, where the top 10% of each graduating high school class is automatically accepted to attend a Texas public college. Mr. Weil would add the stipulation at these 10 percenters could not comprise more than 60% of any entering freshman class.

In France, undocumented immigrants have the right to emergency health care and preventative care (in the interest of public health) and the right to attend school. Otherwise what else would the young people do? If not in school, then the kids would be in the streets. That is not better.

The EU immigrant intergration plan in the last 10 years has emphasized language training and access to citizenship. An immigrant can apply for citizenship after 5 years of temporary residence. A child born to immigrant parents can become a citizen at 30 years old.

In the US, a permanent resident (green card holder) has to wait 5 years before they can apply for citizenship.

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