Undocumented Immigration Haunts Italy's Ruling Coalition
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to reach a consensus around stricter control of undocumented immigration at Italy's borders and beyond. The prime minister's proposals have yet to be embraced by the European Union, while at home, even his own ruling coalition seems divided.
When Italy took over the rotating European Union presidency in July, Italian officials identified the control of undocumented immigration—a thorny topic in public and political debates—as one of their key policy priorities. But EU members such as Germany and France, beset by budget crunches at home, have shown little interest in Italian proposals for an EU-level anti-terrorism project that would address undocumented immigration through joint external border controls and law enforcement. Indeed, Berlusconi's plans to finance a common European immigration policy and proposed quid-pro-quo visas for cooperative sending countries received little support from fellow EU leaders at their recent summit in Brussels.
At home, political infighting has stalled Berlusconi's attempts to build consensus around the issue. In July, the right-wing National Alliance and the Northern League Party (a member of Berlusconi's ruling coalition) called for the removal or resignation of Interior Minister Giusseppe Pisanu, who is perceived to be a moderate on immigration issues. These parties, which attract much political support from strict "law and order" planks in their political platforms, have alleged that Pisanu is incompetent to deal with what they see as the increasingly pressing problem of undocumented immigration.
While Berlusconi has managed to keep Pisanu in his post, the Northern League has threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition altogether if the government does not take stronger measures against undocumented immigrants. Advocates for refugee rights have strongly condemned some of the rightwing proposals, including one calling for boatloads of immigrants nabbed at sea to be sent back to their ports of origin, by force if necessary.
Undocumented immigration came to dominate public discussions, headlines, and political debates in June through August, amid reports of many undocumented immigrants arriving on boats mainly from Tunisia and Libya. The news was also filled with reports of ships sinking between North African ports and Italy's southern coasts, with a high toll of immigrant lives.
While Italy's legal immigrants make up less than five percent of the total population, far fewer than in many other EU countries, several amnesties and regularization programs in the last decade have done little to reduce the sizeable undocumented population that plays an important role in the informal economy. Public opinion about immigrants continues to be shaped by common media images and stereotypes of the mostly Albanian and African undocumented refugees and immigrants as contributors to crime, drug trafficking, and commercial sex work.
From another angle, the debate over undocumented immigration is shaped by the Italian private sector's desperate need to replenish a workforce depleted by the rapid aging and shrinking of the native-born population. Italy's business community continues to be a powerful voice for increased legal migration, and Berlusconi's government has responded with some revisions to Italian labor laws. These include a new provision allowing employers to hire an undocumented immigrant first and then regularize the worker's status by petitioning the government for a permit that lets the worker remain in the country legally.