Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Immigration Question

Note: I’m honored to be added to the roster at Novel Adventurers. From its inception, I’ve followed this blog and envied the zest for life, writing, and travel the contributors exhibit.

Since I came to live in Rome in 2002, the percentage of legal immigrants has risen almost 50 percent, from about 1.5 million to nearly 4.5. The number of illegals adds about another million.
Chinese Grocery Shop in Rome
Until this influx began, Italian culture, with its focus on food and family, had remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Now, people are feeling threatened by the way Chinese restaurants and Halal butchers have popped up everywhere. The Immigration Question gets almost as much newspaper ink and air time as ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Some people take their frustration out on individuals. I once saw a Chinese man unload merchandise from his car onto a handcart and begin pushing it towards his shop. An Italian man hit the boxes, strewing them along the sidewalk. It was deliberate and ugly.

Laws designed to make things difficult are being codified as well. Until last year, for example, it was possible to take the drivers license test in several languages. Now, it’s only offered in Italian.

Halal Butcher
Many people call immigrants extracommunitari, a term that technically means “outside the European Community.” In fact, it’s a highly pejorative term referring to people with dark skin or from the poorest eastern European countries like Albania and Romania. When I point out that I am, in fact, extracommunitaria, I’m always corrected: “Oh, no! You’re American.” Many of the people who want restrictive laws for the extracommunitari don’t believe they include me.

When I first applied for a residency permit in 2002, all immigrants in Rome went to the same office where a couple of clerks processed paperwork. We immigrants stood waiting our turns in an open courtyard, often in the rain.

As the numbers grew, Rome’s city government decentralized everything. For two application periods, I completed the process within walking distance of my home. It was painless, if not swift.

But the numbers continued to rise, and public perceptions continued to plummet. The process has become more convoluted. My permit expired in October. I filed application to renew in September. My first appointment to be interviewed came last week. I went to the new Immigration Office via an hour-and-a-half trip by public transport. I stood in line forty minutes just to take a number to wait my turn. I have to go back in January. And so it goes.

Inflatable Raft Near Lampedusa
The strife in the Middle East is creating more tension. Italy’s southernmost point, the island of Lampedusa, lies about the same distance from Tunisia as Cuba from the Florida Keys. Inflatable rafts arrive daily bearing refugees and others seeking to immigrate, legally and not. Italy has become the gateway to all of Europe. One conservative politician advocates having the Italian navy patrol the waters around Lampedusa and fire on the rafts.

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. In a country where birth rates are low and longevity high, many people see immigrants as a way to keep the pension funds filled. And in some towns where the population has dwindled due to unemployment and death, immigrants are welcomed as hope for the future.

Not everyone is threatened by the changes. I spent time earlier this week with a woman who moves in Rome's highest social circles. She told me that when party conversation among her snobbish (her word) friends turns to immigration, she always tells them, “We used to be the immigrants. We Italians arrived at Ellis Island, dirty, covered in lice, poor, and ragged.” She thinks the diversity is a good thing for Italy.

Italy has long been a nation of emigrants. It’s still feeling its way as a nation of immigrants.


  1. Thanks for your insight on immigration in Italy. I take interest in the subject from different angles. My son-in-law is from Mexico, and my son and his family moved from CA to Spain this year, so I'm particularly tuned into immigration discussions...

  2. Very interesting observations. I'd never really given much thought to immigration policies of countries other that the U.S.

  3. Kenda, glad you found my post interesting. Sounds like you have very personal reasons to keep tabs on immigration policies in various places.

    Anonymous, the fascinating thing is that the arguments for and against immigration here and in the U.S. seem very similar.

  4. Patricia: I know it is so hard in many countries to be able to truly be part of the country. Even though I spend many months a year in Italy, I am no expert whatsoever on how to get things done. We have been very hesitant to buy a second house there- one that would need restoration. Even with an architect husband, I don't know if I could handle what it would take to battle the paperwork, the cost, and the time. Having said that, I'll be there the end of next week and regret having to leave. It's a wonderful wonderful place. Thanks for your comments. On spot.

  5. The bureaucracy is layered, in part because it is so old. But I think the days of Under the Tuscan Sun house buying and renovating is a thing of the past.

  6. Very interesting piece, Patricia. I've read about Spain being an entryway for immigration into Europe, mainly from Africa, but I hadn't thought about Italy being the same for the Middle East. It makes sense, though, considering Italy's geographic location.

    About house buying a la Under the Tuscan Sun: is this because of the red tape involved or has Italy since passed laws making it difficult for foreigners to buy property?

  7. The red tape is so long (don't get me started). The people involved in that Tuscan Sun adventure admit (perhaps not knowingly) that they gave bribes to cut through the red tape.

    So many of these stories involve large properties that are now quite expensive and difficult to gain title to. I think it's still possible to find modest places.

    Forty years ago, I knew several people who bought peasant houses and transformed them into small, but comfortable, dwellings.

    One such house belonged to the friend of a famous author and of mine. The house originally had had a living room/dining room/kitchen in half of the ground floor and a stable on the other half. Above, via steep stairs, were two bedrooms. The new owners dug out the stable and transformed it into a kitchen and bathroom. The other ground floor room, with its enormous fireplace, became the living room.

    I stayed in that house many times. The famous American writer also visited the house at different times. I laughed when the writer's biographer, who had obviously no information about the place, described it as a "villa" in Tuscany.

    I loved the place. It had beautiful views and was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. I learned how to cook Italian food there, and enjoyed many happy hours. But a villa it was not.

  8. Patricia welcome aboard and thank you for such an interesting post. I'm interested to know what the Italian government does when people do arrive by boat. Do they take them on as refugees or ship them back? And if they do let them stay, are they integrated into the community or kept separate? Australia has many people arriving by boat also, and the immigration issue here is always a hot button.

  9. Sorry, I need to clarify about being kept separate -- I mean while their case is being processed by the Italian government.

  10. The island has "processing centers" where Italian officials try to determine which refugees are political and which are economic. The economic refugees are returned. Of course, that determination is difficult to make, and the center is always tense. Last spring, during the political crisis in Tunisia, the situation was explosive. Lampedusa normally has a population of about 5,000, and the immigrants coming by boat outnumbered them by thousands. Charitable groups from throughout Italy sent personnel and supplies to give aid. Italy called on the European Union for assistance because many of the refugees eventually move north.

  11. Oh, and thanks for the warm welcome!