ZURICH — Switzerland will hold a binding referendum later this month on whether to subject any foreign resident to automatic deportation if convicted of offenses ranging from murder to breaking the speed limit.
Sentiment in the famously wealthy and orderly Alpine republic has drifted towards the anti-foreigner right as more than 1.1 million migrants have streamed into Europe during the past year, and over a spate of sexual assaults by mainly North African migrants on women partying on New Year's Eve in Germany.
The anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP), which holds about a third of seats in parliament, engineered the referendum by securing the required number of signatures, playing on fears that foreigners may pose growing risks to the Swiss way of life.
The pro-business Free Democrats and liberal-left Social Democrats oppose it, saying the SVP's undertaking is racist, excessive and could damage relations with the European Union.
Foreigners make up one-fourth of the country's 8 million people — but 68 percent of Switzerland's jail population. Foreigners — from EU states like Italy and Germany but also tens of thousands from the Balkans and Africa — also comprise a large number of those working for big companies in Switzerland.
Under the proposed law, foreigners would be automatically deported after completing their sentences, without the right to appeal, both for serious crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery, and for two lesser offenses committed within a 10-year span such as speeding and breaking-and-entering.
"Secondos," as the Swiss refer in a non-derogatory way to Swiss-born but non-citizen children of immigrants, would also face automatic expulsion if convicted of a crime.
The SVP's referendum campaigning has pulled no punches. Posters depict a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland.
Critics say automatic deportations would violate European Convention on Human Rights rules applied to families, as deportees could leave dependent relatives behind, exposing them to financial hardship.
Government officials estimate that 10,210 people could have been deported in 2014 had the SVP proposal been in effect.