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The Immigrant Factor in Italy: What Will the Word "Italian" Mean in the Future?
JULY 19, 2004 - The tables have turned for our beautiful Italy. The country once known for its fleeing southerners is now a favored destination of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The Italy our forefathers left behind is long forgotten. Today it is a relatively stable country with a relatively stable economy. It symbolizes hope and potential prosperity for 2.5 million immigrants already living there - and scores of others who dream of making the trek. But is Italy ready to become a melting pot?
Any native who has ever left Italy knows that assimilating to another culture is a necessary process that usually takes generations - and a lot of heartache. The immigrants are not the only ones adjusting. The natives and the country's leaders are coping with the changing face of their society. They share an awkward dance as they all try to weave other cultures and belief systems into already established - often centuries old - traditions.
What results is a whole new society replete with Little Italies, Chinatowns, synagogues, temples, churches - one right next to the other. Before you know it, the definition of what it means to be an Italian will include a whole lot more than dark haired, dark eyed, Caucasian Catholics who eat pasta. Oh, wait, it already does. After all, immigrants represent 4 percent of the population. That sounds like a tiny piece of the larger picture. But that 4 percent has been a thorn in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's side since his Y2K second-coming in politics.
He was criticized for being anti-immigrant after reportedly saying that he would shoot down boats with refugees trying to illegally enter Italy. Just last week, the courts declared his administration's tough two-year-old law, meant to stem the number of illegal immigrants trying to reach Italy's shorelines, as unconstitutional. BBC.com pointed out that this ruling comes at a particularly vulnerable time - when Berlusconi is fighting to keep his political party from splintering into other groups.
In May, Berlusconi's three-year-old government became Italy's longest serving administration since World War II after tucking 1,060 days under its belt. But Berlusconi is at risk of losing it all, plagued by his inability to fulfill campaign promises for reduced taxes and lingering controversy about his conflicts of interest. And the immigration laws seem to be a major bone of contention among his usually loyal administrators and constituents.
To add salt to the wound, recently, a group of 37 West Africans were allowed to land in Sicily after their boat was shipwrecked and they were saved by German refugee aids, according to reports. Now, Italy has to decide what to do with the West Africans, who requested asylum but had lied about their nationality; they first said they were Sudanese to get sympathy. In addition, the captain of the German ship and two of his colleagues were arrested for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants, which is causing another major row with Germany. (About a year ago, Berlusconi publicly referred to German lawmaker Martin Schulz as a Nazi when he questioned the Italian's legal predicaments.)
No one can predict what will happen to Berlusconi and his political party, although he's already begun to make compromises intended to keep the group intact. The only thing we know for sure is that an exciting drama will unfold because Italian politics remains the world's best theater. And Berlusconi makes for one heck of a star.
In the meantime, officials in Milan voted against having an all-Muslim school last week because it would be contrary to Italy's desire to integrate its society. Clearly, the general public is already stirring the melting pot.
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