Berlusconi’s Win a Blow to Immigrants

By Rinku Sen Apr 18, 2008

Earlier this week, Italians re-elected Right Wing, plastic-faced media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi as their Prime Minister after the fall of the center-left Prodi government. This is not good news for Italy’s immigrants. Quite often I hear that the European Union with its no-borders political ethic is a good model for U.S. immigration policy. But people forget that Europe’s borders are only open internally and that Europe takes great pains to keep “undesirables” out of the continent altogether. Italy, with its long coastlines and its very short history of receiving immigrants, has clamped down on immigration to ingratiate itself with its European neighbors and to bolster a coherent cultural identity. Like many countries in Europe with aging and shrinking populations, they’d like to keep immigrant labor but not immigrants themselves. For a while, before and after Berlusconi, the country began to see the inhumanity of that stance and started to create integration programs. In his last term, Berlusconi backed the notorious Bossi-Fini laws which punished immigrants by making legal status almost impossible to sustain– it banned family sponsorship, restricted migrants to 6 month stays if they’re unemployed, and criminalized undocumented people. I was in Italy the week that the Prodi government collapsed reporting for my book on immigration (The Accidental American, September 2008, Berrett Koehler). When I interviewed Saida Mamdouh, whose brother Fekkak is a cofounder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, she whispered every time she said the word “clandestino” as though her walls were bugged. She hoped the law would change, but thought it was unlikely given the collapse of the left. “Now the Bossi-Fini ministers will come back,” said her husband. On the train from the airport in Rome, I met a 21-year-old Bangladeshi man whose story revealed the precarious legal status of most immigrants there. Javed had been in the country for 3 years, and unemployed for the last 3 months, in 3 more he’d be deportable. He told me that it often takes six months to get papers, and permission to stay is usually granted in one-year increments, and so, as soon as you get papers, you have to start again trying to get new papers. The United States is taking the wrong lessons from the EU and Italy, sounding more and more like the Italian cabinet minister who said, “We do not want immigrants, except for the minimum number necessary for the requirements of our economy, for the minimum amount of time possible, and in times of absolute precariousness, so that it will be easy to free ourselves of them when we are ready.” But an immigration system based on denying people rights and protections while demanding their labor won’t work any better here than it does there.