By Lauren Consky
A young Bangladeshi man working at the convenience store pointed to a plastic bag in his hand. "What do you call this?" he asked me in Italian.
"Bag," I responded in English.
"No, in Italiano?"
"Uhm borsa?" Wrong again. He rolled his eyes at me. At the time, I assumed he was simply correcting my facile grasp of his second language; but in retrospect, he may also have been expressing frustration that, unlike me-- a privileged foreign student-- his children may have to pass a language test to attend Italian schools.
Indeed, October was a tough month for immigrants. On October 15th, the lower house of Italy's parliament approved a plan to require immigrant children to pass a special test before being admitted to school. If students failed, they would be required to take special classes on Italian language and culture. The Senate must still approve the legislation for it to become law. Critics call it xenophobic, bordering on fascist while supporters say it is necessary for proper integration.
A week earlier, the Northern League, part of the ruling center-right coalition (with four ministers in Cabinet--including Roberto Maroni, Minister of the Interior) called for a 'points card' for immigrants. Immigrants would start out with 10 points and be deported if their points ran out. Points are lost by criminal conviction. It sounds like a driver's license, except that you get kicked out of the country. The proposal would make it easier to expel immigrants for criminal activity.
Other proposed measures, including fingerprinting Italy's 150,000 Roma (Gipsy), are further examples of an alarmist nationalist streak in Italian politics.
Roughly 4 million immigrants and migrant workers live legally in Italy while 500,000 more work in nero, according to La Repubblica, Italy's national paper. Similarly, the New York Times recently reported increasing use of immigrant labor in traditional jobs occupied by Italians, like restaurants and kitchens. In Bologna, for example, Egyptians run several successful pizza joints.
Immigrants contribute to 9% of Italy's GDP and 1 in 10 workers are foreign-born. Immigrants are an essential labor force in Italy but Berlusconi, who in part won his election in May 2008 by promising to crack down on immigration, is quick to play off peoples' fears of minorities rather than those minorities' contributions to Italian society. However, opposition from EU officials in Brussels may lead the Italian Government to soften the measures.
Lauren Consky is a graduate student in the WH/Canadian 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.