Italy: The Other Side of the Frontier

Immigrants arriving to the US

Public health workers checking immigrants arriving to the United States for signs of illness

by Virginia Ottolina

The negative discourse toward migration in Italy is pervasive at all levels of society. Both political actors and ordinary citizens hold strong prejudices against immigrants and are willing to go to great lengths to deny them access to Italy. This negative discourse, driven by legislation and policies, caused Italy to violate several human rights of migrants and provisions of international law. However, migration is also perceived by many as a positive factor from which Italy could benefit.

The results of the European Elections in Italy seem to constitute a change following the victory of the Partito Democratico (PD), central-left party led by Matteo Renzi, who is fighting to change the legislation against immigration in Italy. More importantly, Cècile Kyenge, member of the PD and former Minister of Integration, has been elected to the European Parliament, and was the first-ever black person to become a Minister in Italy. Despite the criticism she received from members of the extreme right party, Lega Nord, she continued her work, indifferent to its racist insults.

To understand the issues related to migration in Italy and in Europe in general, it is necessary to take travel back to the first decades of the twentieth century. “European states basically did not have to adjust their immigration policies and did not have to worry about refugee settlement,” said influential sociologist and expert on globalization and migration, Saskia Sassen, Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, about immigration before the Great War. “America was open to this vast influx, and America, it seems, was where most wanted to go.” But the war would change this setting dramatically.

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 in the United States inspired Western Europe to consider the broader, inter-state consequences of the refugee crisis. The regulation was restricting the number of yearly immigrants to the United States to three percent of the number of people from the immigrant’s home country already living in the United States as a consequence of WWI.

Once the European states realized the gravity of the post-war immigration crisis, many among them started deporting Jews. Increasingly high number of refugees and closed borders made the League of Nations and European governments aware of the reach of this crisis.

Between the two world wars, the advent of fascism and Nazism led to new refugee flows. The economic crisis of 1930s and the massive unemployment constituted a critical economic framework, making migrants — from the European governments’ point of view — a new element of destabilization and unemployment. It was this context that produced xenophobia and anti-Semitism and ultimately brought all Western countries to close their borders.

Europe radically changed its approach to migration in the 1950s and 1960s, when the economic crisis of the 1930s was over and the governments no longer felt invaded by migrants. They developed a high demand for foreign workers instead. Under new circumstances, the United Nations approved the “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” during a special conference on 28 July 1951 which entered into force on 22 April 1954. This legal text was the turning point that ensured protection for refugees and asylum seekers, as it contained the first comprehensive definition of what constitutes refugee status.

In this context, Italy makes for a curious case. Historically the greatest emigration country, it saw its citizens move to the US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia and to European countries such as France, Germany and Austria. Over 20 million Italians altogether migrated to these countries. These flows were particularly patterned: people from the North of Italy went to other European countries, whilst southern Italians preferred to move overseas.

Emigration peaked at the beginning of the twentieth century, as between 1880 and 1920, 5 million Italians went to the Americas, and 4 million came from the South. Firms and employment agencies often contacted workers from Italy to recruit them. In many countries, immigrants did the hardest jobs — typically in mining, manufacturing, construction as well as night work. Meanwhile, their children were employed in the silk, cotton and jute industries, or they were used to clean the furnaces, load and unload them while living in terrible conditions and being paid less than the locals. With little to no opportunity for advancement, immigrants were living on the margins of the receiving countries’ societies and they were object of direct discrimination (both in Europe and Americas).

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, there was an expansion of the geography of migrations to include new flows from Northern and Western Africa as well as from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This expansion created new receiving countries, which had until then been primarily sending countries. Alongside Spain and Greece, Italy faced this change as well. Late in the 1990s, scared by the immigration flows, the relatively new receiving countries implemented policies aimed at reducing the inflow and access of migrants and refugees.

At the time when Italy was primarily a sending country, Italians who went to the Americas managed to integrate with society to a greater extent than Italy allows new immigrants from African countries or Eastern Europe to do so today. Results of policies aimed at integration of migrants can be still seen today in the US, where many families carry Italian names but are American citizens of many generations. These immigrants have contributed greatly to the cultural and social life of the countries they emigrated to and show the positive effects of migration.

For example, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York on November 2013 with 73 percent of the vote, whose mother was a first generation Italian-American. De Blasio’s parents emigrated to the United States from the southern Italian city of Benevento (Campania) in the 1920s. With his campaign focused on the fight to grant minority rights, he is working toward equality and rights for all. However, he is not the first mayor of the city with Italian roots: Fiorello la Guardia was mayor of New York from 1934 until 1945, and so was Rudolph Giuliani from 1994 until 2001. These two, however, were members of the Republican Party. Bill de Blasio is not only the first Democratic mayor with Italian roots, but the first Democratic mayor of New York since 1993.

There is an important difference between the Italian immigrants that flooded the US and the incoming immigrants to Italy today. In order to properly evaluate the situation, we need to assess different contexts under which these people started leaving their countries. Italians of the past were the ones pushing through frontiers of other countries where they were seeking better opportunities. Today, Italians are those who build those frontiers. The Italy of today has much to learn from the New World that in the past dealt with diversity and inclusion of foreigners into their own culture.

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