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Italy's New Sanctuary Movement Will Challenge An Anti-Immigrant Law In Constitutional Court

The law strips legal immigration status from tens of thousands of people already in the country.

Posted on January 10, 2019, at 1:44 p.m. ET

Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Officials from about half of Italy’s 20 regions announced this week that they will ask the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on a new law that strips legal immigration status from tens of thousands of people already in the country.

The policy, which cancels residency permits that had been granted to immigrants on humanitarian grounds, was included in a sweeping “security decree” backed by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and adopted by parliament last month.

The mayors of several major cities launched a movement comparable to the US’s “sanctuary cities” movement last week, declaring that they would refuse to enforce the policy. But only the regional governments — which are like US states under Italy’s federal system — have the power to directly ask the Constitutional Court to suspend the law.

Catiuscia Marini, president of the region of Umbria, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini’s law would actually make Italy more dangerous.

“He calls it [a] ‘safety decree’ but it actually brings less safety to the people,” Marini said in a phone interview. “Not granting temporary residency to migrants makes it harder for institutions and police to identify them, [to] know where they are and what they are doing.”

The law has created a widespread outcry from regional and municipal officials in part because there’s no clear guidance on how to handle the immigrants already legally in residence. In theory, these people no longer have a right to stay in Italy, but there’s no real way to deport them because Italy does not have repatriation agreements with foreign governments. Stripping them of residency permits cuts them off from federal programs that provide services like housing, health care, and education, forcing local governments to pick up the cost of providing these services or risk a sudden spike in a homeless population that's been barred from ways to support themselves.

Umbria was the first region where the local legislature voted to ask the Constitutional Court to review the law. Marini said the legislature would argue that the law violates a right to health care that is included in the Italian Constitution. She said its legal team was coordinating with the other regional governments planning to challenge the law — including Basilicata, Calabria, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Marche, Piedmont, Puglia, Sardinia, and Tuscany — and was also working with sanctuary cities in regions where the regional government refused to support them.

Salvini said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that he was unconcerned by the legal challenges to the law, which are all coming from governments led by the opposition center-left Democratic Party.

"I am sure the Law will pass the test," Salvini said. “The leftist regional governments are just trying to get visibility. They do not care about the Italian people."

Salvini’s office circulated a letter last week from 29 mayors aligned with his Lega party endorsing the law, saying the “law contains the right principles.” But the national federation representing municipal governments known as ANCI came out in opposition to the rule, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has agreed to hold a summit with their leaders on Monday.

Enrico Rossi, president of the region of Tuscany, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini was the one using the law to pull off a political stunt.

"Our democracy is complex because power is greatly shared with local governments. There is no totalitarian power as Salvini would like, ruling with tweets and social media,” Rossi said. “He must respect us and our legitimate actions. His law is a law that puts the people in jeopardy, not safety."

Paolo Bonetti, a professor of constitutional law at the Bicocca University in Milan who works with the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, a large refugee rights organization, told BuzzFeed News that he believed the law violates many aspects of the Italian Constitution, international law, and European law; however, he added, he only gave the regions’ lawsuit a 50% chance of being accepted by the Constitutional Court.

"In the long run, it is not destined to stand as it is,” he said, adding that the court might reject the regions’ lawsuits on technical grounds. And under the rules of the court, the regions only have a few weeks to get their petitions filed.

Ultimately, he said, challenging the law might require petitioning the European Court of Human Rights, which is generally a years-long process that can only begin once national courts have finished reviewing a case.

But if it gets to that point, Bonetti said, the court will surely “rule against the decree eventually, as the decree defies many of the European laws too.”

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