Since last month’s election of Italy’s new prime minister, I’ve been bombarded with questions from folks in the United States. Friends, distant acquaintances and total strangers considering the expat life in Italy seem anxious. And, while many Americans are thinking about getting out, the decision for Black Americans is necessarily based on factors that may heighten the anxiety.
No one wants to leave a frying pan to take up residence in a fire.
Will expected changes to immigration policies affect those seeking visas, or seeking to renew their visas? Is there reason for expats to be alarmed?
First, it’s important to remember that stringent requirements for visa applicants are designed to ensure that no one becomes a financial burden on the government. So long as we comply with said rules and regs, there is no logical reason for concern. That said, of course, there are deeper cultural issues to consider, issues that may or may not be affected by whatever new laws may be adopted.
As a Washington Post piece asserted one day after the election, “…immigration still strikes a chord with many right-leaning voters in Italy, who feel their country has received scant help from Europe in handling the burden of accommodating and integrating new arrivals. A surge of asylum seekers and refugees in 2015 and 2016 turned migration for several years into a political touchstone and helped spark a nationalist movement across Europe.”
And, according to Al Jazeera, “Immigration has been a big part of (Georgia) Meloni and (Matteo) Salvini’s
campaigns with promises of stricter border controls, blocking boat landings and establishing EU-managed centres outside the bloc to evaluate asylum applications. At the same time, they have said they will manage legal migration in a more orderly way, including programmes on the inclusion of new arrivals.”
What is in the hearts of Italians?
With a president, a prime minister and a multi-party parliament, Italy’s political structure goes beyond just right and left. But, at least three far-right parties – Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy), Salvini’s Lega Nord, or Northern Brotherhood and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, or Forward Italy – are allied on most issues. Anti-immigrant sentiments among those three parties are largely directed at people crossing the Mediterranean seeking asylum, not those crossing the Atlantic seeking residency.
But do such sentiments affect those in the latter group who are Black or Brown? The answer is no, at least not at this time. No official is going to single you out because you are a Black American applying for a long-term visa or residency in Italy.
As we’ve seen in the U.S., changing laws does not change hearts. Although civil rights legislation has been adopted incrementally in various sectors and iterations over a number of years, racism in the States has remained deeply imbedded in many hearts over those same generations. (And, since 2016, the country has returned to the status of vocalizing those views being accepted practice.)
So, the question is, what is in the hearts of Italians?
Given that political dynamics in Italy have been in a state of flux for years, what’s happening today and what lies ahead may not be as drastic as many think anyway. So, once again, let’s set politics aside. Let’s get back to those hearts. People are people. Everywhere. Racism exists everywhere to one extent or another.
Perhaps you’ll encounter a consulate agent who harbors prejudices when applying for your visa; or a worker who expresses hostility at a supermarket or post office or pasticceria. We all recognize it when we see it, be it the suspicious side-eye or the hateful glare.
I can only speak from my own experiences in my first nine months living in Italia. While I’ve seen my fair share of ugliness, I didn’t come here expecting the entire nation to embrace me warmly and everyone to call me bella (although there’s been plenty of that, too). I am a realist, and with reality in mind, I explored several regions to get a feel for where I could be comfortable and enjoy the benefits of life in this country without looking over my shoulder.
Fewer incidents in Italy
And, although the scourge does indeed exist here, too, thankfully I’ve had far fewer incidences here in Italy than I typically experienced in the U.S. Even as someone who tries to stay keenly tuned in to both political and cultural trends, I have a level of comfort and safety that I wasn’t even sure I could expect before coming here.
Today, having made a few friends and gotten more comfortable with the language, any potential threats to my ability to stay here safely and legally never even occurred to me – until I started getting all those questions.
For the aspiring Black expat – any other aspiring expat for that matter – don’t let the new government deter you. As with all things, keep your eyes peeled and let wisdom rule the day. Monitor any changes in visa application requirements, and arm yourself with a boatload of patience. And, rest assured, relocating to Italy is still doable.
And hearts are still warm.
You can read more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.