Uproar Over Italian Town’s Foreigner Registration Drive

Uproar over Italian Town's Foreigner Registration Drive

November 23, 2009

(PHOTO : A woman walks past Northern League election posters in Milan in 2008. The posters read: “They suffered through immigration; now they live on reservations.”)

Officials in the northern Italian town of Coccaglio are visiting the homes of foreign residents and expelling those with expired residency permits. The initiative, which is called “White Christmas,” has caused a national uproar, but city officials claim their words have been taken out of context.

An initiative dubbed “White Christmas” to check the residency status of immigrants in a small town in northern Italy has created an uproar. While some city officials defend the action as a census with merely a poorly chosen title, others see it as another in a long chain of events revealing the growing power of Italian xenophobia.

The “White Christmas” initiative was launched on Oct. 25 in Coccaglio, a town of fewer than 7,000 people about an hour's drive east of Milan, in Lombardy. As part of the campaign, city officials are going to the homes of about 400 of the town's roughly 1,500 foreigners between now and Dec. 25 to check their immigration status papers. The majority of these immigrants are from Morocco, Albania and the former Yugoslavia. According to Italian daily La Repubblica, those who are found with residence permits that expired six months ago or earlier will be expelled if they cannot prove that they attempted to renew them.

The city's town council, which is controlled by three members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative People of Freedom party and four members of the right-wing and anti-immigrant Northern League, including Mayor Franco Claretti, chose the English title “White Christmas” from the famous Bing Crosby song of the same name.

“We don't have a crime problem,” Claretti, who took office in June, told La Repubblica. “We just want to start cleaning things up.” Claudio Abiendi, the city official in charge of security and a member of the Northern League since it was founded in 1992, had the idea for the initiative. “For me, Christmas isn't the celebration of hospitality but, rather, of Christian tradition and our identity,” he told the paper. Abiendi also noted that, of the 150 inspections already carried out, roughly 50 percent found that the person no longer had a right to reside in Italy.

Offensive and Defensive

Such comments have led to an uproar in Italy. “It makes you think of the sound of the boots of the fascist soldiers in the ghetto of Rome chasing after Jewish inhabitants,” Kurosh Danesh, the national coordinator for immigrants for the CGIL, Italy's largest trade union, told La Repubblica. Anna Finocchiaro, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party in the Italian Senate, said: “The Northern League's vision for our country is xenophobic, racist, violent and backwards.” She added that, in Coccaglio, “people want to hunt down all the immigrants whose residence permits are expiring as part of the Christmas celebrations.”

Claretti defends the initiative by saying that Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the Northern League, had been “practical” in allowing town councils to implement measures related to checking the residency status of foreigners “without having to appeal, as usual, to the courts.” He also conceded that the name selected for the operation might have been ill-chosen. “Maybe it was unfortunate,” he told La Repubblica, “but that's the day the initiative ends on.”

It's a sentiment that has been echoed by Italian Reform Minister Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League. “The municipality was just applying the law,” Bossi told La Repubblica, “even if there was no need to call the initiative 'White Christmas.' They could have called it 'Christmas Regularity Control.'”

Taken Out of Context?

The controversy came to a head after an interview with Abiendi was published in the Giornale di Treviglio, a paper of a small town halfway between Coccaglio and Milan. In a follow-up interview with the ASCA news agency, Abiendi claimed that the earlier article took his words out of context. “It was not a 'cleaning' operation, as it was presented in the article,” Abiendi told ASCA, “but a type of census to ascertain the situation in the area around Coccaglio.”

“The 'white' in the 'White Christmas' slogan is not meant to refer to the skin color of whoever is celebrating it.” Abiendi added. “Instead, it's simply quoting a lyric from a well-known song to indicate that time as the deadline for the final verification measure.”

According to the local news Web site Bresciaoggi.it (Italian only), at a televised encounter between the mayor and his critics on Sunday in front of Coccaglio's town hall, Claretti told those gathered that: “I won't allow anyone to call us racists. We are just conducting an initiative based on a law of (former Italian Prime Minister Romano) Prodi.” Claudio Rossi, the leader of a local left-wing political group, reportedly responded: “No one is saying that the controls you are conducting violate the law. What's unacceptable are the declarations that accompany them, such as the name you chose.”

The turmoil has led to worry among the town's residents that they will become the new symbols of Italian xenophobia. Last week, Giovanni Gritti, the head of the local Catholic parish, published a letter repeating that “Coccaglio is not racist!” He admitted that calling the initiative “White Christmas” was a “gross oversight,” but he also took the Giornale di Treviglio and other media sources to task for using headlines such as “A Christmas without Immigrants” as “completely out of line, as well as offensive to good taste.”

“Of the people I know here,” Gritti said, “not one is racist.”