Italy's influential Northern League Party has stood out over the past decade for its particular knack in finding new (and not-so-new) ways of offending people based on country of origin and color of skin. In 2003, Umberto Bossi, founder of the party, which once espoused separatism, told an interviewer that police should open fire on the boatloads of undocumented Africans arriving on Italian shores, calling the would-be immigrants "bingo-bongos." Other Northern League pols have proposed everything from separate trains for immigrants to banning the building of new mosques and even prohibiting the serving of kebabs and other non-Italian food in city centers.
The latest swipe by the Northern League attempts some kind of holiday spirit. The league-led city council in Coccaglio, a small town east of Milan, has launched a two-month sweep from Oct. 25 to Dec. 25 to ferret out foreigners without proper residency permits. It has been dubbed Natale Bianco, or "White Christmas."
Claudio Abiendi, a longtime Lega Nord member who leads security policy on the city council, told the daily La Repubblica that he came up with the initiative as a way "to start cleaning things up" in Coccaglio, a town of 7,000 with some 1,500 immigrant residents. "For me, Christmas isn't the celebration of hospitality, but rather of Christian tradition and our identity," he said. Abiendi also told the paper that approximately half of the 150 inspections already carried out turned up people who no longer had a right to reside in Italy. He said he would report them to national authorities.
The city council office is responding to requests for interviews with a press release denying any racist intent, noting that the Natale Bianco moniker was not an official public designation. The impromptu local census "was born to know the real number of foreign-born citizens present in Coccaglio so as to better manage the economic resources destined for integration projects." Local officials say the measure follows a national policy set forth by Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, a member of the Northern League, to give local administrators more authority in monitoring the residency status of foreigners.
The Northern League, founded in 1991 on a platform to separate the richer northern regions from the rest of Italy, is as strong as it has ever been. It is now a key ally in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's majority in Parliament after garnering 10% of support in the last national election on a campaign focused on deepening worries about crime and the economy. Last week, the league floated (but then withdrew) a measure in Italy's budget bill that would have capped unemployment benefits for foreign-born workers.
Both the economic scapegoating of immigrants and the vision of the league's White Christmas irk the Comunita di Sant'Egidio, an influential Catholic lay group that defends immigrant rights. "The insults and rhetoric help to exploit uncertainty and create political consensus," says Mario Marazziti, Sant'Egidio's spokesman. "But in the end, it is against the national interest. Italy is in demographic decline, and the only real chance is to work to integrate immigrants, who are the last hope for the country to start to grow again. All the rest just creates conflict and puts off resolving this crisis."
Indeed, even as the Northern League continues to cite Christian themes in its opposition to a growing Muslim minority, Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 27 presented the annual message for the upcoming World Day of Migrants and Refugees. "Jesus' words resound in our hearts," he said. " 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me,' as, likewise, the central commandment he left us: to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, and to associate this with love of neighbor." Now that is a different kind of Christmas spirit.