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Friday, November 02, 2007

The Politics of Immigration

Wherever one lives, one can count on certain types of immigrants always being a sore spot. When I lived in Greece in 1994/95 it was the Albanians who were blamed for all the crime, the stealing of jobs, and bleeding public services. It was not unusual to see blue buses with barred windows running through Athens jammed full of illegals to be taken to the Albanian border and dumped, undoubtedly after a few kicks and slaps. Once I was eating at a street-side cafe in Patras and I saw that a Greek taxi driver was refusing to give an Albanian woman and her baby a ride. I asked the waiter about it and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "We don't like the Albanians here. I wish we were more like the Italians. They know how to take care of immigrants," the clear inference being that the Italians know how to rough up the unwanted.

In Italy they would be surprised to know this, for since time immemorial the lion's share of crime has been blamed on the gypsies ("Zingari"), especially petty theft. They don't blame them for taking jobs, because "they're too lazy to work." I must say, the little ones do learn at an early age how to go begging and they can be annoying. Now that Romania has come under the umbrella of the EU, many gypsies are even legal.

Well, evidently a legal Romanian immigrant in Rome just beat up an Italian woman, who has now died. The entire country has been in an uproar for almost a week and the Parliament made the unprecedented move of passing a law that was signed by Prodi and went active within 24 hours declaring that any immigrants, legal or otherwise, who commit crimes can be expelled from the country.

Since the Italians pass all sorts of laws and rarely enforce any, I wonder whether it will have much of a real impact. At any rate, the immigration problem here in Italy, unlike the exaggerated one in the US, is actually real in the following ways: Imagine a country the size of California with double the population. Now imagine it being surrounded on three sides by long stretches of sea. Now imagine one of the poorest zones in the world sitting just a small boat ride to the south. Now imagine open borders with new "states" that are poverty-ridden, like Romania. Now imagine a country that really does have public services, such as public health. You get the picture. 8 years ago when I first came to Vicenza, one of the things that struck me was how there were so few immigrants. There was, and still is, a trailer park full of Zingari along a major thoroughfare and they receive free electricity and water from the city, but that was it (not counting the American soldiers). What was particularly striking was that there were no black or dark-skinned people here. Now they are everywhere (I went to a large supermarket Wednesday night and it seemed to me that half the store's clients were Muslims).

One thing is for sure. Given that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots keeps getting bigger, we can expect immigration to grow as a political topic worldwide into the foreseeable future. Of course the human species has always been on the move and attempts to stop such migrations are bound to fail. In particular I’m reminded of the words of Mark Twain (I think it was Mark Twain) who said something like: “America has always had an immigration problem. Just ask the Indians.”


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