Monday, April 18, 2011

France blocks train from Italy as immigration battle heats up

A TRAIN carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy has been stopped at the French border in an escalation of an international dispute over the fate of North African migrants fleeing political unrest for refuge in Europe.

But France blamed what it said were hundreds of activists on the train planning a demonstration in France, and posing a problem to public order. Traffic was re-established - but not before Italy lodged a formal protest.

"At no time was there a ... closing of the border between France and Italy," French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henri Brandet said. It was an "isolated problem", he said by telephone, "an undeclared demonstration".

He estimated that up to 10 trains may have been affected, five on each side.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who earlier in the day told his ambassador in Paris to lodge a strong protest over the blocking of the trains, said that Italy understands that the activists could be a cause of "concern" for France.

But Mr Frattini insisted in a telephone interview with an Italian TV channel today that the Tunisians had the proper paperwork to enter France.

Italy has been giving temporary residence permits to many of the roughly 26,000 Tunisians who have gone to Italy to escape unrest in northern Africa in recent weeks. Many of the Tunisians have family ties or friends in France, the country's former colonial ruler, and the Italian government says the permits should allow the Tunisians to go there under accords allowing visa-free travel among many European countries.

France says it will honour the permits only if the migrants prove they can financially support themselves and it has instituted patrols on the Italian border - unprecedented since the introduction of the Schengen travel-free zone - bringing in about 80 riot police last week. Germany has said it would do the same.

A spokesman for the Italian rail company, Maurizio Furia, told The Associated Press in Rome that the train carrying migrants and political activists who support them wasn't allowed to pass into Menton, France, from the border station of Ventimiglia on Sunday.

Italy lodged a protest with the French Government, calling the move "illegitimate and in clear violation of general European principles" the Italian Foreign Ministry said. Frattini ordered his envoy in Paris "to express the strong protest of the Italian Government."

The French Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.

However, France's Interior Ministry insisted on the isolated nature of the problem and said that once the train was blocked, activists demonstrated on the train tracks in Vintimiglia, forcing the prefect there to take action because they were blocking traffic.

The ministry spokesman said the French rail authority and the prefect of France's Alpes-Maritimes region, which governs the French border town of Menton, ordered the train blocked because activists planned an unauthorised demonstration once in France.

"France did not demand the closing of rail traffic between France and Italy. It was a consequence" of the activists plans which threatened public order, Mr Brandet said.

The distinction is critical as tensions rise between Paris and Rome over the migrants.

European nations have been increasingly and bitterly sparring over the issue.


Immigration bills bring rare spat between GOP, business interests in Tennessee

Republican lawmakers and Tennessee’s business community are in a rare disagreement, spatting over the GOP’s slate of immigration legislation. And Gov. Bill Haslam is stuck in the middle.

Lawmakers are rolling ahead with a bill that would force Tennessee businesses to check the immigration status of all new hires, dealing a rare, public setback to business groups from the Republican-led legislature.

State representatives are pushing through a measure that would require businesses to run every future employee through a federal government immigration-status check known as E-Verify. They have stuck to their guns even though groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry have lodged complaints that the system is faulty and costly.

The usually wide divide between business groups and lawmakers has sucked in Gov. Bill Haslam, who is trying to broker a compromise. But the two sides remain far apart, with lawmakers demanding mandatory E-Verify checks and business groups saying that plan is unacceptable.

“One of the things that makes it hard is there’s legitimate interests that don’t always coincide,” Haslam said. “Republicans are pro-business. The flip side is we’re also people who feel like we have a responsibility to uphold the law.”

The E-Verify bill is one of three major immigration measures moving through the legislature. Another bill would require similar checks into the status of people who apply for benefits, and the third would direct police to check the status of anyone they stop or detain.

All three bills have detractors, but the E-Verify bill has drawn the heaviest fire.

Business groups question the accuracy of the system, arguing that even if the Department of Homeland Security’s figures are accepted, E-Verify would return incorrect results 3 percent of the time. The system also is not suited for detecting illegal immigrants who use false identities, and although E-Verify is free, the law would require some businesses to purchase new computers just to access the system, they say.

“The intent is excellent,” said Jim Brown, state director of the NFIB. “It’s the application. I think people want something done, and our members want something done.”

Proposal passes

But the bill won easy passage in the House State and Local Government Committee, drawing support even from the committee’s Democrats. Lawmakers point out that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development would be authorized to hire a full-time employee, at a cost of about $53,600 a year, to assist businesses in looking up workers on E-Verify.

“Just like workers’ comp and unemployment insurance, if we don't make it mandatory for everyone, you’re not going to get anybody to participate,” said state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, the bill’s main House sponsor. “I think that the business community is looking out for their singular interest. My approach is a little bit more broad-based than theirs.”

The issue is one of a few this year on which lawmakers have differed with business groups.

Some groups have opposed legislation that would require health insurance policies to offer coverage of up to $2,000 every three years for a pair of hearing aids for children, a mandate that they say will push up businesses’ health insurance costs. But that bill has cleared the House and is making its way through the Senate.

Business groups also have opposed several bills that would require employers to let their workers with handgun carry permits bring their weapons to work if they leave them locked in their cars. They say these bills violate businesses’ property rights, raise safety issues and could leave them liable to lawsuits if someone were shot.

“Just like you can say you don’t want weapons brought into your home, we should be able to say we don’t want them on our property,” said Deborah Woolley, president of the Tennessee Chamber. “It comes back to classic, private property rights.”

But business groups say they still consider the legislature and the Haslam administration to be supporting their interests. They point to policies such as Haslam legislation to cap damages in personal-injury and medical malpractice lawsuits and the administration’s 45-day moratorium and review of state regulations. “There are just disputes from time to time,” Brown said.

Business holds talks

Business groups and Republican leaders say they continue to hold talks on the E-Verify bill as it moves through the legislature. Final votes are not imminent because the bill still has to clear at least one committee in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives.

A potential hurdle is the legislation’s costs. The state would need to hire three inspectors to make sure companies are using E-Verify, bringing the bill’s total cost to $287,100 a year, according to legislative estimates.

Those costs would mainly be covered using tax dollars. Legislative staffers predict the state will punish no more than five companies a year for breaking the E-Verify law, which calls for a fine of $1,000 on companies that intentionally hire illegal immigrants.

Still, the bill continues to pick up steam. In addition to Carr, 60 House lawmakers have signed up as co-sponsors, and Republican leaders say they do expect the measure to pass this session.

“I think everyone agrees with the sentiment that we want to follow the laws of the country,” Haslam said. “Like everything else, you’re weighing costs and benefits.”


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