The mayors of several of Italy’s largest cities vowed this week to defy a new law backed by Italy’s far-right interior minister that strips legal immigration status from tens of thousands of immigrants already in the country.
Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of the southern port city of Palermo, is spearheading the movement, joined by mayors from cities including Florence, Naples, and Parma. This kind of revolt by municipal officials against a powerful ministry has little precedent in Italy, immigration advocates say.
The affected immigrants “were living [legally] in Palermo, living in Italy, working, paying the tax, paying contribution to social services, and in one day they become illegal,” Orlando said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News on Thursday. Their integration into the city kept Palermo safer, he said, because they would report problems to the police or mayor’s office.
“The only way to guarantee security is just to respect human rights … but we’re in front of the government that is against human rights, against the constitution,” Orlando continued. “We think that the migrants are human beings … we defend the only race existing — the human race… Whoever divides the races prepares Dachau and Auschwitz, prepares the genocide.”
The movement, which has some similarities with the sanctuary cities movement in the United States, comes in response to a new national law pushed through last year by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party. Salvini, who was sworn in as interior minister last June, has become Italy’s most popular politician since winning office last year with a nonstop anti-immigrant campaign pushed through his large social media presence.
Salvini fired back at the mayors’ defiance during a livestream on Facebook Thursday morning while vacationing with his family, holding a strong drink and seeming to slur his words.
"If they think of intimidating someone, I tell them that they have picked the wrong minister and the wrong government," said Salvini in a handheld cellphone video as one of his children popped in and out of the 10-minute video. “I tell these mayors the party is over, they will be accountable to their citizens, who pay their salary, to their children, to those who will come. Because we have given enough and have welcomed too many already."
A spokesperson declined to respond to questions from BuzzFeed News, texting that "the minister is explaining everything he has to say directly on social media.”
Salvini’s new law, which was fast-tracked in the name of national security, strips special status from tens of thousands of immigrants who were granted permission to live in work in Italy on humanitarian grounds. A special program to help vulnerable immigrants integrate into Italian society has been slashed. Those without residency permits cannot register with the municipalities for basic services, such as medical care or schools.
The hastily passed law has caused a great deal of confusion in Italy. In theory, these immigrants no longer have the right to stay in the country, but there is no mechanism to deport them because Italy does not have any repatriation agreements with foreign governments, said Marìka Surace, a lawyer with the refugee-rights organization CILD. If these immigrants suddenly lose services, Surace said, it could cause serious problems for cities, including a spike in homelessness and crime by people who have nowhere to go.
“If I don’t have food, don’t have money, what should they do? After three days, maybe I try to find something in a way that’s not so legal,” Surace said. “That’s why the mayors are in this fight. knowing this fact, they know, the only result is that in a few months we will have all these people … in the streets.”
The mayors are ordering registrars to ignore the new law and to keep immigrants on their books. Salvini has recently threatened to withhold funding controlled by his ministries from municipalities resisting the order — which would affect nearly $3.5 million going to Palermo — but Orlando told BuzzFeed News he’s hoping the government will take him to court so he can force a ruling on whether the security decree is constitutional.
“I say to civil servants … not to give application to this law [while] waiting for the court,” Orlando said. “In front of the court, I will say this law is not constitutional."
Ibrahima Kobena, president of a council of Palermo’s immigrant residents, applauded the mayor’s campaign in a conversation with BuzzFeed News, and said that they would launch their own sit-in against the decree at Palermo’s city hall on Friday. The group is also discussing organizing a hunger strike.
“We migrants are all together to support the mayor of Palermo," he said.
Guilia Alagna contributed reporting to this story.