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Italy makes immigrants speak Italian

Terrorism pushed Britain to start strictly enforcing a requirement for English-language competency for prospective citizens. Three of the 2005 London suicide bombers were native Britons of Pakistani descent while the fourth was born in Jamaica.

Since 2005, would-be citizens and permanent residency holders have been asked to prove their command of "Britishness" by answering multiple choice questions, in English, on British history, culture and law, from explaining the meaning behind the fireworks-filled Guy Fawkes Night, to knowing which British courts use a jury system.

Britain's government has pledged to dramatically cut immigration, and the language requirement is effectively a tool to put a cap on the number of newcomers, said Sarah Mulley, an immigration expert at the Institute of Public Policy Research, a London think tank.

Home Secretary Theresa May, who aims to cut immigration to below 100,000 by 2015, said language tests will help weed out those who don't plan to contribute to British life. She has singled out spouses seeking marriage visas to join English-speaking partners as a particular concern.

"There is a concern about long-established communities in the U.K. who are not well integrated, for examples, some of the Pakistani (and) Bangladeshi communities, and that's largely linked to language limitation," Mulley added.

But Mohammed Reza, a Pakistani on a student visa who is studying for Britain's citizenship test, saw language as a path to integration.

"If I'm wearing traditional clothing on my way to the mosque, everyone on the tube (subway) looks at me funny and gives me wide berth," Reza said. "It's hard to beat the stereotype, but speaking English is probably the most important thing for fitting in. That's why I read as much as I can and try to learn the lingo here."

In Italy's case, there has been a much weaker tradition of immigration and no major Islamic terror attacks. Still, a strong spike in newcomers in recent years - along with the very newness of the immigration phenomenon - has fueled a xenophobia surge and boosted the popularity of the anti-immigrant Northern League, Premier Silvio Berlusconi's main coalition partner.

In 1990, immigrants numbered some 1.14 million out of Italy's then 56.7 million people, or about 2 percent, according to the state statistics bureau, ISTAT. At the start of this year, foreigners living in Italy amounted to 4.56 million of a total population of 60.6 million, or 7.5 percent, with immigrants' offspring accounting for an ever larger percentage of births in Italy.

Amid the trend, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi's influence in government has grown ever stronger, his rhetoric often laced with a racist tinge. Bossi once referred to immigrants as "bingo bongos" and has suggested that migrant smugglers' boats off Italy's shores be fired upon with cannons.

Last year, a Northern League lawmaker proposed extending the language requirement to all non-EU citizens who want to open a store or other business in Italy, but the move died in Parliament.

Bossi "represents the extreme" in stands on immigration, said Manuele Bacci, 38, one of a fourth generation of butchers running a shop in Florence's cavernous San Lorenzo covered market. The other extreme, he said, is absolutely no restrictions.

"We need to take a step toward them and they need to take a step toward us," was Bacci's formula for integration.

But many immigrants say they'll be rejected no matter how hard they try to fit in.

Cojochru, the Moldovan nanny and caregiver, hoped obtaining permanent residence would help her bring her two teen children to Italy; they live with her sister in Moldova, where wages are among the lowest in Europe. She was skeptical that the language requirement would encourage integration.

Italians always "see me as a foreigner," an outsider, despite her years in the country and despite her flawless command of the local language, she said.

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AP reporters Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Tamara Baluja in London, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.


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