Saturday, March 7, 2009

Criminalizing Migrant Workers of Color

My American centered point of view frequently makes me forget that the United States is not the only country with overly stringent immigration policies. I suppose this would be true if global stratification only existed in and around North America.

But over in Italy, an influx of migrant workers from North Africa has led their government to propose immigration policies that don't exactly coincide with basic human rights and certainly won't stop the broader global conditions that cause immigration in the first place. From a story on BBC News:

Last month, an emergency decree designed to tackle rapes - many of which have been blamed on immigrants - gave official blessing to the formation of citizens' street patrols. A security bill awaiting final approval in the Italian parliament also contains several controversial provisions, including:
  • procedures for medical staff to denounce illegal immigrants
  • making illegal immigration a criminal offence punishable by a fine of 5,000-10,000 euros (£4,400-8,800)
  • prison terms of up to four years for those who defy expulsion order

The story also notes that on the Italian island of Lampedus, where many of these migrants first arrive, "...the men are living in shelters made from cardboard boxes, squatting while they look for work picking citrus fruit in the fields of Calabria, on the country's southern toe." So let me get this straight, they're going to deny medical attention to those who are surely disproportionately poorer in health?

And let's get back to that criminalizing thing. Not only will these men face "prison terms of up to four years" if they disobey deportation. In addition, they are being characterized as rapists, in all likelihood so that these xenophobic policies are approved and enforced.
Italy's Northern League interior minister, Roberto Maroni, justifies the proposed security bill:

"The percentage of crimes linked to non-Italians was more than 35% and the non-Italians do not account for 35% of the people in Italy ... All interpretations are legitimate. My concern as interior minister is to guarantee the highest possible levels of security, first and foremost by combating clandestine immigration."

According to the BBC article, some accounts say Italy's immigrant population stands at almost 7%, making their alleged contributions to 35% of all crimes heavily disproportionate. But again, it appears that in order to push the bill through, these migrant workers - notably men of color - are being characterized as rapists in particular, even though rape is one of the least common criminal offense types in high-income countries.

Gee, haven't we seen this characterization of black men elsewhere? Uh, maybe in the United States, enforced most heavily during and just after the abolition of slavery? And why was that racialized portrayal of black men created, along with the brutal enforcement policies that accompanied the portrayal? To keep black communities from advancing economically.

Okay, this isn't exactly the same situation, but the overlap is not insignificant. If 35% of all Italy's crime can be attributed to immigrants (and if that figure is legit, as Mr. Maroni claims), how much of it can be attributed to North African migrant workers, and how much of it is property crime, as opposed to violent crime? Furthermore, if most of the crime is property crime (
e.g., theft), then why the particular focus on rape, especially when the perpetrators of those rapes have yet to be convicted?

This pattern of using one of the most hideous crimes in order to impact social policy, in a way that has clear racial overtones and implications, just doesn't get old.

(Photo courtesy of BBC News)

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