Immigration: Northern League's White Christmas

God bless us everyone. (Photo: Underlord/Flickr)
God bless us everyone. (Photo: Underlord/Flickr)
24 November 2009 – La Repubblica (Rome)

In Italy, the local council of Coccaglio is dreaming of a “White Christmas”. Such is the name of a seasonal police operation against illegal immigrants launched by its Northern League mayor. Between now and 25 December, police will be knocking on the doors of the 450 non-EU families to check on their residency permits—and best wishes for the New Year.

For John, the high point of last year's white Christmas was a Gospel music concert in the parish of Santa Maria Nascente. He remembers the long evenings of rehearsals with his Ghanaian friends—who, like him, live in the historic centre of Coccaglio—and the choristers from the Senegalese community, many of whom live in council flats in a town where virtually everyone lives in small villas and detached houses. As John says, "Last year's White Christmas was a celebration for me too, because I am also a Christian. We organized the concert because we knew the Italians don't have many opportunities to hear this kind of music, which they only know from television. But this year, we are being told that we have to leave before Christmas."

In Coccaglio, in the municipality of Brescia (northern Italy) where the "White Christmas" immigrant purge is now in progress, John and his friends currently represent a fifth of the population. In the local town hall, one of the walls bears a graph showing the increase in the number of migrants, which has prompted so much ethnic change over the last ten years—177 foreigners in April 1998, 1,583 in April 2009—in a town with less than 7,000 residents. In spite of this hike in migration, not much appears to have changed in this ancient backwater with its old centre, which has remained untouched for centuries, and its Roman fort festooned in fairy lights. Everything seems as it should be outside the old church, where Mass is occasionally said, and by the monument to the 16th century author of madrigals, Luca Marenzio, which dominates the central square of the same name and cuts the town in two.

No comment from the local mayor

Although the immigrant purge is the talk of the town, many politicians are reluctant to discuss the subject. Umberto Bossi, the leader of the populist and xenophobic Northern League party, which plays a key role in the governing majority in Rome, simply asserts that "the municipality is just applying the law, even if there was no need to call the initiative 'White Christmas.' They could have called it 'Christmas ID verification.'" Mayor Franco Claretti and Claudio Abiendi – the local councillor in charge of security – "both of whom are long-standing members of the Northern League," prefer not to comment . However, Agostino Pedrali, council delegate for social affairs, cannot resist the temptation: "Since we took over the town hall in June, we have spent €89,000 on immigrants than and only €43,000 for Italians." "Pure propaganda," retorts centre-left opposition leader Claudio Rossi: "only two of the 150 dwellings that were filled were allocated to foreigners."

But it is not hard to find people who have plenty to say about the measure. You just have to stop by the May Day café and tobacconist's on the outskirts of the town. Though it is known as "the Kosovars café," the man behind the counter Andrea Cavallini, "is Brescian born and bred." In the brief moments when he and his wife are not serving grappa and battling with the expresso machine for the Italian, Albanian, Macedonian and Kosovar customers, he explains his views on the immigration issue: "All of them have jobs, some of them work in the factories, and the others are on the building sites." Andrea, who is a friend and something of a father to the young Slavs at the counter, retained ownership of the tobacco side of the business when he sold the bar, where he still works, to the immigrants. He takes a dim view of the Northern League initiative: "I find it very disturbing. The method is disgraceful. They send you a letter, and if you don't reply they come round to your house to see if you are hiding illegals. That's the way they used to behave under Mussolini, and under Stalin too. Do we really want to go back to those times?" When you ask the young Kosovars what they think of operation "White Christmas," they break off their game of table football, and their smiles suddenly vanish.

Unemployment could mean deportation

"The ID checks are not the problem, and it doesn't make much difference what name you want to call it," says Mergan, "the timing is the real issue. Right now, if you lose your job, you can't renew your papers. It's true that you can lodge an appeal on the basis that you've been made redundant, but you are only allowed to do that once. What happens second time round? What do you do with your wife, and your children that were born here in Coccaglio?" Mergan, 38, was single when he moved to the Brescia region 11 years ago. Now he is married and the father of four boys. Stories like his are common among the immigrants in the region. Most were able to get work on the building sites of Bergame and Brescia, at the Scab furniture factory, making coffee machines for the famous Bialetti brand, or at one of the dozens of small engineering companies in the region. But times have changed, "I have no more work. The Italians just aren't calling me anymore," says Mergan. "If the situation doesn't change soon, one day they will come knocking on my door to check my papers. What will happen then?"

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