EU defends new migration rules amid Latam uproar


BRUSSELS (Reuters) - New European Union rules for immigration are fair and the bloc is more open to foreigners than some Latin American countries that are protesting about the changes, the head of the EU's executive said on Friday.

"Honestly I don't believe that the criticism is fair," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said.

South American leaders at a summit this week slammed the new EU rules which allow authorities to detain illegal immigrants for up to 18 months.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has threatened to stop selling oil to European countries if they apply the new law.

But Barroso said the changes were positive for Latin America and other developing regions of the world because they would create a level playing field for immigrants within the bloc.

"By the way the rules...are more generous than ones Latin American countries have between themselves," he told reporters.

"This is important not to forget. For instance, between Colombia and Venezuela or between Bolivia and Colombia you don't find this kind of openness that we have in Europe."

Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have immigrated to Europe in recent years in search of jobs. The law has angered some South American leaders who say the region welcomed European immigrants throughout the 20th century.

Barroso said immigration into Europe had to be controlled to avoid the risk of large inflows fanning xenophobia in the bloc.

"Look at what's happening in the United States regarding Mexico, it's amazing," he said, referring to U.S. vigilantes who volunteer to help stop illegal immigrants crossing into the country along its border with Mexico.

"At least in Europe so far we have never had militia to make a kind of persecution of migrants and I hope we never (will)," Barroso said.

He also said Brussels was working on plans to impose criminal penalties on European employers hiring illegal immigrants and protect migrants from exploitation.

The European Commission estimates there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the EU. More than 200,000 were arrested in the first half of 2007 with less than 90,000 expelled.

(Reporting by William Schomberg) ... ectionID=3