On Immigration, Italy’s Government Faces an Unlikely Foe: Local Officials

On Immigration, Italy’s Government Faces an Unlikely Foe: Local Officials
People demonstrate against racism and the government’s immigration policies in Rome, Italy, Dec. 15, 2018 (AP photo by Alessandra Tarantino).
Italy’s populist government scored a big legislative win late last year when it signed a new security decree into law, making life much harder for immigrants, especially asylum-seekers. But mayors and regional governors across the country are refusing to implement many of the law’s provisions, setting up a legal fight with the central government in Rome. In an interview with WPR, Marco Calaresu, a political scientist at the University of Sassari in Italy, and Anna Di Ronco, a sociologist at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, discuss the mounting grassroots resistance to the security decree and explain why the standoff between national and local levels of government is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. World Politics Review: What has been the impact so far of the security decree on immigrants, especially asylum-seekers? Marco Calaresu and Anna Di Ronco: The security decree is largely a product of the political will of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the far-right populist League party, which forms a coalition government with the Five Star Movement, another populist political party. The decree has had detrimental effects on social groups that were marginalized to begin with, especially asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants. For example, migrants can no longer obtain two-year humanitarian residence permits, which were previously granted for a variety of reasons, including those related to health and dire poverty. Italy’s Supreme Court has ruled that this will not apply to applications submitted before Oct. 5, 2018, but those who currently hold the status will not be able to renew it. The decree also overhauled the System of Protection of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees, which established facilities where migrants could attend Italian language courses and undertake vocational training. Now, those centers are only open to unaccompanied migrant children and refugees, not to asylum-seekers. In practice, this means that asylum-seekers have a very high likelihood of ending up on the streets or squatting in abandoned buildings, activities that are punished more harshly by the security decree. It also introduced a new offense, “aggressive begging,” which can be punished with arrest and a very high fine. WPR: How strong is grassroots resistance to this measure among local officials in cities like Palermo? What is the basis for these officials’ refusal to implement Salvini’s decree? Calaresu and Di Ronco: In January, the mayor of the city of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, announced his intention not to apply the security decree within his city. He has continued to allow applications for residence based on humanitarian status, in defiance of the decree. He has also continued to allow migrants with residence permits to be registered in the municipality of Palermo, something the decree expressly forbids. Being registered in a municipality is important, as it unlocks access to social services, including health facilities, employment assistance and schooling. At first, Salvini was quite dismissive in his reactions to Orlando on social media, chiding the mayor for “practicing disobedience,” despite “all the problems affecting Palermo.” But other “disobedient” mayors soon followed suit, especially in jurisdictions controlled by center-left political parties, even if they did not go quite as far as Orlando did. For example, the mayors of major cities like Naples and Parma supported Orlando but expressed concern about how to concretely challenge the decree, since local authorities risk being prosecuted if they do not comply with the law. Other local officials who oppose the decree—including the governors of Tuscany and the Calabria region—appealed the decree to the Constitutional Court, which is currently deciding whether to hear the case. Their argument is that the decree violates the constitution because it affects matters—like public health and social policies—that are under the jurisdiction of regional governments. WPR: What is the outlook for the legal standoff on immigration policy between Salvini and his opponents? Calaresu and Di Ronco: Many Italian legal scholars say the Constitutional Court is unlikely to hear the case, but if it does, the matter would be resolved within 60 days. If the court does decide to hear the case, there are a wide range of possible outcomes. For example, the court could decide to rule only on the narrow question of whether the decree impinges on the rights of regional governments, which would leave most of the decree intact. The courts would only have grounds to evaluate the decree’s constitutionality if Salvini decides to pursue legal action against the mayors and other officials who are refusing to apply the decree. Beyond the legal uncertainties, local authorities are primarily concerned with the practical impact of the security decree on their citizens. They would like to avoid a situation where more irregular migrants live on the streets with no access to health care, jobs and schooling. But according to a recent study by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, this is precisely what is likely to happen as a result of scaling back protections for asylum-seekers. Cut off from social services, migrants would be forced to take on work in the informal sector—which is itself illegal—or be exploited by criminal networks. Local officials would understandably rather focus on integration, rather than repression. Many mayors have expressed these concerns through their association, the National Association of Italian Municipalities, or ANCI, which has met with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to discuss possible solutions. The ANCI believes that the mayors’ objections are not political but practical, and has asked the government to work on technical reforms to evaluate the social and economic impact of the decree on their cities, which are already struggling because of the recent budget cuts. At the center of this political and legal standoff on immigration policy is a disconnect between the central government in Rome and the local levels of government, which are responsible for implementing national policies on security and immigration. The central government wants to show the electorate that it is taking a firm stance on immigration, but local administrators need to deal with migrants on a daily basis, and do not want to unnecessarily criminalize them. This political conflict will continue for the foreseeable future, and is unlikely to be definitively resolved by a court ruling.

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