A few minutes into the second open meeting of Associazione di Immigranti, an association for the promotion of immigrant rights in the Veneto region of Italy, a minor scuffle in the front row tips over a white board set up to register votes for the group’s president and knocks down a photo of the pope, triggering barely suppressed sniggers among the Italian socialists running the meeting. Crammed into a tiny side chapel of the San Francisco Church in Rovigo, more commonly used for First Communion lessons, the numerous representatives of the Moroccan, Senegalese, Albanian and Nigerian communities, unable to see or hear anyone who should be guiding the proceedings, start to lose patience. Gradually the crowd drift off, and those remaining quickly realise that any election that takes place now would have very little legitimacy.
Since the passing of the Bossi Fini Law, a joint legislation drawn up by the Veneto Separatist party and the Allianza National (the heirs of Mussolini), in July 2002, the role of the immigrant in Italian society has been reduced to the purely economic. Civil status depends entirely on employment, and consequently on employers who are willing to validate their immigrant workforce and assist them in obtaining a ‘permiso di sogiorno’ or residency permit. Those who do are obliged to pay a fine for having hired illegal labour. This results in a situation whereby the employer has total control over any ‘extra-communitaria’ (literally, ‘outside of the community’) employee; the promise of a permit keeps the employees working for a minimal wage, until they are relieved of their services with the threat of deportation if they turn to the authorities or given the permission of their employers to apply for residency, provided they pay the fine themselves. And of the 700,000 or so applications presented since the law came into effect, less than 1,000 have so far been processed.
Italy’s economy is dependent on cheap, flexible labour, but its political structure resists realising the social contract necessary for any long-term, responsible policy. All Italy’s immigrants are economic since there is, at present, no asylum law. Immigrants fleeing persecution without having done their homework will discover that there is in fact no process of application, and that they will be deported without question following a couple of months spent in a detention centre.
Mario Cruz, a former taxi driver in Ecuador, with brothers and sisters spread over Western Europe and North America, arrived in Rovigo in March 2002, following his wife who found work as a domestic help a year before. After four months spent working ten to twelve hour days as a manual labourer on a farm, for which he was paid a total of 400 Euros, he was forcibly ejected from the premises, prevented from retrieving his belongings and threatened with the police. Since then he has been sleeping in the railway station or at friends’ houses, helping out the odd hour a week in a mini-supermarket, frequented almost exclusively by the immigrant community, and being paid between 5 and 10 Euros. ‘It’s not a real job. It’s like when I used to give my children a couple of dollars to clean out my taxi; it’s pocket money.’
Associazione di Immigranti was founded in 2001 with the aim of promoting immigrant rights, principally by helping to assist residency applications and address the problem of housing. Money set aside by the municipality for accommodation three years ago has yet to result in any material benefits, and estate agents are reluctant to let property to immigrants. Flats registered in immigrants’ names are regularly searched by the police, who check the number of people sleeping there.
The Associazione, having drafted, amended and finally passed a statute, is now in the process of organizing elections for a central committee, composed of representatives of all the significant immigrant communities in the area.