- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

ROME Italy plans to begin expelling illegal immigrants from the Muslim nations of North Africa and elsewhere in response to the events of September 11, scrapping a long-standing policy of sheltering almost anyone who reaches its shores.
An immigration reform law backed by conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and moving through parliament calls for the expulsion of immigrants who entered Italy illegally and don't have regular work contracts.
The measure would affect an estimated 300,000 people, about 18 percent of the total immigrant population, according to Caritas, a charity group.
The government is determined to fight rising crime, which according to recent polls most Italians blame on illegal immigrants.
But officials say they have become especially wary of who shows up on their coasts in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent arrests of suspected terrorists who immigrated from Northern Africa.
Some of these immigrants have been accused of providing false documents for al Qaeda members operating in Europe. The Islamic Cultural Center in Milan was targeted by the U.S. government in October as an important base for the terrorist network.
The Adriatic coast is prone to traffickers from Albania, largely responsible for bringing an estimated 3,500 women into Italy, and arrests of traffickers have increased by 53 percent in the last seven months, according to government figures.
Chinese immigrants also have been increasingly targeted for aiding illegal immigration to Italy. Recently, eight Chinese and several Italians were arrested in the Tuscan town of Prato, home to Italy's largest Chinese community. The city's textile industry is believed to be using illegal laborers, some of them children, who are treated as indentured servants.
Proponents of the law say Italy's fisheries and farming sectors employ large numbers of illegal immigrants at cheap wages, taking away jobs from Italians.
However, only 7 percent of the public agrees with this notion, according to a recent study commissioned by the Region of Lombardy, which has the highest concentration of immigrants. Eighty percent of those surveyed believe immigrants are taking up only the labor-intensive jobs that Italians will no longer do.
While most employers agree with the argument, over a half of those surveyed in a study by the Milan Observatory in the same region said Italian immigration law is too "permissive" and a third said immigration has an overall toll on society.
According to Apimilano, a trade association, 51 percent of entrepreneurs said they would not hire Muslims.
An approved amendment to the law, however, allows regularization of illegal domestic workers, baby sitters and caretakers of the elderly if they prove they have jobs and housing. These workers are considered indispensable in Italy's "graying" society, which the United Nations estimates would need a yearly influx of at least 150,000 immigrants to maintain its population stability.
After a recent report showed the majority of caretakers were irregular, the elderly took to the streets throughout Italy, demanding that the government regularize the workers.
The proposed law has provoked much opposition from both the left and the public. Two weeks ago, more than 150,000 people protested in Rome against the proposal, calling it racist and uncivilized.
The law is named for Vice Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance party that has roots in the Fascist Party, and Umberto Bossi of the Northern League Party, which is known for its anti-immigrant stance.
"This is a damaging law for Italy. We need more immigrants," said Mario Marazitti, spokesman for Sant'Egidio, Italy's largest immigration association that organized the protests.
Meanwhile, immigrants who have lived illegally in Italy for years have begun flocking to immigration offices, desperate to avoid expulsion.
Those caught entering Italy illegally are brought daily to the Regina Pacis assistance center for immigrants and trafficked women on the Adriatic coast. Asylum seekers stay there until other arrangements are made; others are either immediately repatriated or detained for a month and then given an expulsion slip good for 15 days, which often becomes a ticket to go underground.
Don Cesare Lodeserto, a priest who runs the center, hopes the law combats criminality without damaging the desperate. "It's a good thing that some immigrants are turned back. With others, we should engage in assistance, dialogue and integration," he said.

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