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New Year, New Showdown Over Immigrants in Italy

Left-wing big city mayors in Italy say they will not enforce tough new anti-immigration measures pushed into law by a far-right political party in Italy's coalition government.

(CN) – Left-wing big city mayors in Italy say they will not enforce tough new anti-immigration measures pushed into law by a far-right political party in Italy's coalition government.

Migrants disembark from the Italian Coast Guard ship "Diciotti" in the port of Catania, Italy, early Sunday morning, Aug. 26, 2018. Italy’s populist government had not let them leave the ship for ten days after they were rescued in the Mediterranean on Aug. 16, demanding that other European Union countries would take them. Only Ireland did, pledging to take 20, while non-EU Albania will take 20, and Italian Catholic bishops said they would care for about 100. (Orietta Scardino/ANSA via AP)

The showdown ratchets up a confrontation between Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his critics over how to deal with the large number of immigrants and asylum-seekers hoping to live in Italy. This political and legal fight is an Italian version of the clash between the Trump administration and so-called “sanctuary cities” in the United States.

The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, issued an order to his staff telling them not to apply the law, arguing it is unconstitutional and will turn foreigners in Sicily's capital into outlaws by stripping them of permits to be in the country.

“It's a law that is inhumane and makes people into criminals,” he said, La Repubblica, a national newspaper, reported on Thursday. “I cannot be an accomplice to such a blatant violation of human rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to education and to healthcare, for people who are here legally.”

Palermo is a city with a large population of immigrants, with many owning businesses and living in the city center. Under the new laws, some foreigners who get a permit to stay in Italy are not guaranteed public services.

Salvini said he would respond with legal action to the mayors' acts of defiance, saying “laws must be respected.”

“The good times are over,” Salvini said in a video he posted online Thursday. “We've already given and housed [asylum-seekers] far too much in the past. If [the mayors] think they can intimidate someone, let me tell them they've found the wrong minister and the wrong government.”

Orlando was joined in his protest by Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples. Officials in Milan, Bologna and Florence also announced their opposition to the new measures.  

On Thursday, de Magistris upped the stakes in the fight with Salvini and said he wanted to allow a humanitarian ship in the Mediterranean Sea to dock in Naples. Salvini warned that Italian ports are closed to humanitarian ships.

The ship, the Sea-Watch 3, reports that it has been at sea for 12 days with 32 asylum-seekers aboard whom it rescued from the Mediterranean. But no European port has granted it permission to dock, the nongovernment organization running the ship said. It was struggling in high seas and bad weather.

“Still no end in sight of our untenable situation. We are still declined a port of safety, where the 32 people rescued and a haggard crew could set feet on land,” the ship said on its Facebook page Wednesday.

Humanitarian ships refuse to take people they rescue from the sea back to Libya due to the dangerous conditions in that North African country. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Asia and Africa have sought refuge in Europe in recent years.

After taking office in June, Salvini was quick to stop humanitarian ships like the Sea-Watch 3 from bringing asylum-seekers to Italy's shores, the first of many steps Salvini took to push immigrants and asylum-seekers away from Italy. Italy has long complained that the rest of the European Union was slow to help deal with a massive influx of people crossing the Mediterranean in rickety vessels with the aim of reaching Italy and its islands lying off the coast of North Africa.

The mayors are rebelling against a package of get-tough-on-immigrant laws that were overwhelmingly passed at the end of November by Italy's parliament. The measures have become synonymous with Salvini and are dubbed the “Salvini decree.”

Salvini is the head of the League party, an anti-immigrant far-right party that is dominant in northern Italy. The League is the smaller coalition partner in a government with the 5-Star Movement, a left-leaning direct-democracy party.

The new laws gut Italy’s generous and extensive system of asylum for people fleeing poverty, war and hardship. Only people who have been granted asylum will be eligible for help now.

The number of people granted asylum is likely to be cut dramatically because the law scraps asylum protection on humanitarian grounds. Italy was one of a few European countries that granted asylum for humanitarian reasons. Such protection could extend, for example, to a homosexual person fleeing a country where homosexuality is illegal.

Under the new decree, only refugees fleeing war or political persecution will have the right to asylum. Special permits, valid between six months and a year, will be given to other asylum-seekers. These other permits would apply, for example, to those fleeing natural disasters, suffering health problems and fleeing exploitation.

An estimated 60,000 people could find themselves with an irregular legal status by 2020 under the new law, according to Matteo Villa, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. Many foreigners in Italy already live and work in dangerous conditions and are exploited by criminal groups.

The new laws also allow Italian authorities to expel asylum-seekers found guilty of a felony, including threats of violence to a public official and theft. They also allow authorities to take citizenship away from naturalized citizens found guilty of terrorism.

Cesare Mirabelli, the former president of Italy's Constitutional Court, said in an interview with La Repubblica that Orlando's act of rebellion could lead to the laws’ constitutionality being examined.

Mirabelli said Orlando was obliged to enforce a law unless it was “blatantly freedom-destroying.” He said it did not appear that the Salvini decree meets that definition. Still, he said the mayor could argue that he felt it was unconstitutional and that he had discretion in applying it.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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