By Roberto Peña
Immigrants detained indefinitely, fingerprinting racially-profiled populations, mass deportations: this may sound like a typical European's justification for prosecuting President Bush at the International Criminal Court, but these disturbing developments are, in fact, part of a wave of anti-immigration policies taking hold in the European Union. The sentiment is likely a result of slowing economic growth and increased pressure on highly regulated labor markets, but such pressures are testing the limits of one of the EU's founding principles, the free movement of labor.
What began as a debate over undocumented immigration is turning into a debate over the merits of immigration, both legal and illegal, and leading to calls of preserving national identity
Recent anti-immigration sentiment contributed to the downfall of the proposed treaty to reform the EU in Ireland and the Netherlands. The 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by Muslim radicals sparked a right-wing movement in the Netherlands, ultimately leading to the defeat of the treaty referendum. Polish immigration and a slowdown in the construction sector may have sealed the treaty's fate in Ireland.
From race riots in France to Mohammed cartoons in Denmark, every major European country is confronting rising levels of undocumented immigrants and the policy responses are startlingly un-European. Italy's immigration plan seeks to expel EU citizens who commit crimes, a possible violation of the EU's Community Law, which limits the expulsion of EU citizens from member states, and Brussels is threatening legal retaliation.
While the immigration reform legislation in the U.S. collapsed over the highly sensitive issue of amnesty, the European Commission chastised Spain and Italy for granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the last few years. Berlusconi returned to power in Italy, in large part, by talking tough on crime and immigration; the country passed a highly controversial immigration pact soon after his election. The plan formally criminalizes illegal entry and raises penalties, but perhaps the most controversial measure involves the fingerprinting of the Roma population. While an independent census can help policymakers understand their options, when combined with politically motivated and discriminatory actions, it is a recipe for disaster. In August, realizing the political gains derived by linking crime and immigration, a new plan involves Carabinieri patrolling the streets in several major cities to tackle both problems. Adding to this mix, several high profile incidents of violence against immigrants and amnesty now appears more likely in the US than in Italy. Last month, even the Vatican weighed in, urging for more compassion on the issue.
The U.S. debate offers a valuable model for analyzing the politics of immigration. The prevailing wisdom in Washington, circa 2006, was that immigration was a winning issue for Republicans touting their national security credentials. This strategy proved an utter disaster when the Democrats took over Congress and several single-issue conservatives lost their seats. In Italy, the immigration issue brought Berlusconi back from the dead, but whether or not this concern can distract voters from an ailing economy and political corruption is yet to be determined. When privacy concerns, civil liberties and human rights are taken into account, questions remain regarding Italy's immigration pact, let alone the frail coalition holding its government in place.
Roberto Peña is a graduate student in the Latin American Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.