The Wall and the Sea

Steve Bannon thinks the Mediterranean can be a laboratory for anti-migrant politics worldwide. Unfortunately, he’s right.

Refugees and migrants after being rescued at sea on June 10, 2017 off Lampedusa, Italy. Chris McGrath / Getty

Anti-migrant politics made a major advance in June as Italy’s “anti-establishment” Five Star Movement and the virulently racist League formed a new government, with hard-right leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister. What has unfolded since is highly reminiscent of the United States’ journey under Trump. The Italian hard right, in fact, is directly supported by America’s most famous white nationalist, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He traveled to Italy several times this year and praised the new government’s anti-migrant crackdown. “If it works in Italy, it is going to work everywhere,” Bannon mused.

Bannon is right that Italy could be a laboratory for anti-migrant politics everywhere. In recent years, its proximity to war-ravaged Libya has made it the key point of entry for African migration to the European continent. As immigration has become central to European Union politics, Italy has become central to the immigration debate. Now its new government is pushing a Trumpian approach to immigration. Fighting the new status quo will require understanding the policies governments are implementing on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the strategies that migrant solidarity movements have pursued to confront them.

Safe Passage

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and beyond have crossed the Mediterranean in recent years. The collapse of Libya’s government has led to a proliferation of organized crime, including militia groups and smuggling networks who have made the transportation of migrants their business. Their human cargo risks detention, torture, forced labor, enslavement, or even death in the hope of eventually reaching Europe. There, they seek relief from the persecution and violence of their home countries — or simply a livelihood for themselves and their families. Many will remain in Italy, due to a European regulation that stipulates that asylum seekers must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in.

The United States has a long and extensive history of immigration, and policy approaches to the issue have varied between welcoming and exclusionary depending on the politics of the time and the relationship between the United States and the country of emigration.  The US border with Mexico has become a major focus over the last several decades as various administrations have attempted to curb migration from Mexico and Central America.

Faced with new arrivals by land and sea, both the United States and Italy have pursued a strategy termed “prevention through deterrence.” The politicians who support it argue that it saves lives by dissuading people from making the journey altogether. But the realities of the strategy show otherwise. Its main tactic is to make migratory routes more extreme, forcing people through harsher expanses of desert or into the care of unscrupulous smugglers. Governments resort to such a strategy despite the widespread consensus that migration cannot be stopped, only managed. The desert and the sea have been weaponized with death appearing as the purpose of the deterrence strategy.

Italy’s goal, which precedes the current government, is to close the central Mediterranean migration route through a three-pronged strategy. It consists of transferring authority for rescue at sea to the Libyan Coast Guard, criminalizing NGO rescue operations, and closing Italian ports to migrant ship landings.

Migrants set out from Libya in dramatically overcrowded rubber boats or disused wooden fishing vessels, often without adequate life vests for the people on board. Smugglers in Libya will generally coerce one of the passengers into being the driver and another to read the compass. They set out knowing they will never make it to Italy due to the shoddiness of the vessels. They aim to make it just to international waters, where they hope to be rescued and brought to a safe port.

Those ports are becoming harder to find. Malta is technically the closest “safe port.” But it’s denied all migrant landings in recent years, allegedly having struck an informal deal with Italy to trade refugee responsibility for underwater oil exploration rights off its coast. Most recently, Salvini, who has promised to expel hundreds of thousands of African migrants, announced a policy of closing Italian ports as well. This has left rescue ships full of passengers at sea for days, at times without necessary supplies, as they make the much longer journey to Spain.

Italy, like other countries, has pursued a border externalization strategy. Following the “surge” of unaccompanied Central American minors in 2014, the United States paid Mexico to ramp up security on its southern border with Guatemala. Similarly, Italy offers direct material support to the Libyan Coast Guard, an only nominally legitimate authority, to keep migrants from leaving Africa’s shores. This agreement was based on the “success” of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, whereby the European Union paid Turkey to keep Syrian and other asylum seekers from reaching Greece. The European Union has gone even further — opening an office in Niger for its border authority Frontex in an attempt to stem the flow from further south.

Many observers claim that making migrants return to Libya constitutes “refoulement”: sending asylum seekers back to a place where they’re likely to be persecuted. This is a violation of international law. Civil society organizations like Watch the Med–Alarm Phone, which works across Europe and North Africa, attempt to document illegal pushbacks, promote a hotline for boats to call in distress, and coordinate with coast guards to locate boats and ensure rescue.

In the past year civil rescue operations like ProActiva Open Arms and Sea-Watch have had troubling encounters with the Libyan Coast Guard, including interruptions of rescue operations, interceptions of refugee boats, and actual shots fired at or near rescue ships. Rescue operations have been further criminalized by Italian authorities, who accuse them of collaborating with human traffickers and have even impounded their ships.

Activists have responded by launching the #apriteiporti, or “open the ports,” campaign. They call for people to write directly to the Italian Coast Guard and work with musicians like Pearl Jam, who unfurled a huge “Open the Ports” banner at their stadium concert in Rome last month.

In the United States the deterrence strategy gained traction under Clinton in the 1990s and has been central to policy on the Mexican border since. Even before Trump’s call for a “big beautiful wall” on the Southern border, there were already about 580 miles of various kinds of barriers in place along the roughly 2000-mile-long border.

Walls are actually “relatively ineffective” at preventing migration. But they do make the number of deaths go up. Local humanitarian volunteer groups like the Samaritans and No Más Muertos/No More Deaths have attempted to prevent deaths by dropping thousands of gallons of water, transported largely by foot, in remote stretches of the desert borderlands each year. Border Patrol has responded by routinely destroying water supplies.

Trump has nevertheless continued to pursue the idea of an impenetrable barrier, despite not having the funds to build it. Some politicians have called for a crowdfunding campaign for the border wall. Many of the engineering and construction firms that would have bid on the contract have been targeted by activists causing some companies to back out of the bidding process, but several prototypes have already been built.

Deterrence has taken on an even crueler tone as Trump shifts from the Obama-era “prosecutorial discretion” approach to “zero tolerance.”  Now the threat of having one’s children taken away or indefinite detention are being used to complement the harshness of the desert.

Legality and Morality

When it comes to due process, both Italy and the United States repress the right to claim asylum by restricting access to legal support and narrowing the parameters of international protection. Italy has several bilateral repatriation agreements, notably with Tunisia, Egypt, and Nigeria, which allow authorities to immediately deport nationals of those countries who do not immediately claim asylum. These refugees may not even know what asylum is or what their rights are.

Salvini recently advised local asylum commissions to no longer take into account illness, pregnancy, having experienced torture in Libya, or having successfully integrated into Italian society, formerly legitimate grounds for consideration in these cases.  The US situation is even more extreme, with Trump stating just last month that he wanted to deport undocumented immigrants “with no Judges or Court Cases” — eliminating the legal process entirely.

In practice, deportations in Italy have thus far represented a very small percentage of the overall number of people with expulsion orders — largely because of the expense of carrying them out. But the deportation infrastructure is set to grow and could become more critical now that there is strong political will to conduct mass deportations. The 2017 Minniti-Orlando decree called for the number of CIE (Centers for Identification and Expulsion) to increase from four to twenty, with one center in each region of the country.

As in the United States, immigrants in Italy are not entitled to legal representation on their immigration claims and so legal intervention is often left to volunteer-driven outreach groups. For instance, Sportello Sans Papiers in Palermo operate a weekly drop-in center for migrants and visit migrant reception centers to offer legal orientation and facilitate connections to relevant lawyers and services.

Many Mexican migrants apprehended upon arrival in the United States will be detained and subjected to mass hearings of border crossers which almost invariably lead to deportation. In 2014, as more and more women and children arrived from Central America to claim asylum, Obama moved to detain them en masse and many were forced to pursue asylum claims without legal counsel.

His approach was designed as a deterrent to would-be migrants and a signal of a tough stance on immigration. As the situation became clear, lawyers from across the country came to the border region, volunteering their time and expertise to screen for and prepare asylum cases inside of the detention centers. Were it not for their efforts many more people would have been rapidly deported.

Under Trump, the qualifications for asylum have narrowed even further. As of June, fleeing domestic or gang violence is no longer considered a grounds for protection, and a new proposal from the Department of Justice would ban anyone who has entered the country illegally from claiming asylum. Notably, the number of people apprehended at the border has actually gone down, while the number of interior deportation arrests on US soil has soared.

So while the overall number of border crossers has been in overall decline for more than two decades (as indicated by fewer apprehensions) Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is ramping up the arrests of individuals throughout the country who are not “lawfully present.” The stated strategy is that ICE is targeting individuals with criminal records, and in particular gang-related histories, but in practice their operations stretch far wider.

Since neither country offers a robust work-visa program for low-skill jobs, and only an increasingly narrow cross-section of migrants can achieve asylum, migrants are forced into either being undocumented or living with a precarious legal status. In Italy, it is common for asylum seekers to receive two-year documents that they must continually renew, not unlike the United States’ DACA program for young undocumented migrants who arrived as children. In Italy, activists will often say that migrants are “being made clandestine.”

This highlights how states deny legal status in order to  manufacture a “crisis” of unmanaged migration and to ensure the vulnerability and precarity of a racialized working class. The Trump administration has thus sought to strip Haitians, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and other nationalities of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and has even gone so far as to ramp up efforts to strip status from naturalized American citizens whom the administration believes have “cheated” the process.

Italy is far less diverse than the United States and its experience with mass black African migration is relatively recent. Now, it is publicly reckoning with the question of what it means to be Italian in an unprecedented way. Many children of foreign-born parents have taken up the struggle for Jus Soli (the “right of soil,” i.e. citizenship based on being born in the country) in order to create space and legal standing for themselves in a society based on Jus Sanguinis (citizenship based on “blood”).  No wonder that in the United States the elimination of Jus Soli is one of the longtime goals of the white nationalist right.

The United States of course promotes a founding mythology of a “nation of immigrants,” which erases indigenous communities and the history of African forced migration and enslavement; as well as the United States’ continued denial of legal status to its approximately eleven million undocumented residents. This mythology may in any case be changing as the political ethos shifts from neoliberal multiculturalism to white nationalism. Indefinite family detention on the border, the “Muslim ban,” and mass incarceration are all a part of the white nationalist fantasy of racial purity and domination. This is very much in line with the politics Bannon advances when he looks to Italy as a testing ground for racial politics and a model for the international far right.

The Muslim Ban was recently upheld by the US Supreme Court, exposing a stark distinction between morality and legality. It has been a moral vision, under the call to #freeourfuture, that has driven thousands of people across the United States to occupy airports and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. These protests have moved what once seemed like a radical call to “abolish ICE” into the political mainstream.

As National Lawyers Guild president Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan reminds us, we cannot turn to the law for justice, but only to people, “who tore down the Berlin Wall, who marched from Selma to Montgomery, who boycott and divest from Israel, who protest colonialism, who brought us #BLM, who stopped fracking and pipelines and who got us free.  The law will not save us,” she says, “we will.”

As migrant solidarity efforts across Italy confront mounting repression, they’ll need to evolve from focusing primarily on humanitarian concerns to promoting a political vision. This is a crucial moment in a country that saw mass emigration up until the late 1970s, and again since 2016. Currently over 10 percent of Italian nationals live outside of the country. This new phase of non-European mass migration to Italy demands new political imagination, a politics of “re-humanization.” And it is African migrants who are leading the way.

Immigrants’ Rights Are Workers’ Rights

On December 16, 2017, the sound of drums and whistles filled ancient thoroughfares in central Rome as tens of thousands marched for “rights without borders.” The demonstration was led by African immigrants and centered on demands for “jobs, rights and dignity.” It offered a visible countercurrent to what Ivorian-Italian trade unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro called the “politics of dehumanization” waged by Italy and the European Union.

In both Italy and the United States it is immigrant workers who are reinvigorating labor struggles against bad bosses, conservative unions, and the state. As unions have come under siege, informal, immigrant-led worker organizations have sprung up across the United States to organize workers in the construction, agricultural, and domestic/care sectors. It’s increasingly important for unionists to address immigration as a worker issue and as an economic reality. This shift has been reflected in the large immigrant rights marches in US cities every May 1 since 2006.

“We are trying to shift the narrative from ‘do we want immigrants?’ to “do we need immigrants?’” says Maria Fernanda Cabello of the militant US immigrant rights organization Movimiento Cosecha. “Because we believe this country is sustained by our purchases and by our work.” Their name, which means ‘Harvest Movement,’ refers to the agricultural labor struggles and grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez in the 1970s.

In Italy too, the struggle for immigrant rights has started in the fields, as North and Sub-Saharan African workers have led strikes and other actions to combat highly precarious living arrangements (often tent cities) and depressed wages (€20/day). These workers are the only force keeping the Italian agricultural sector from utter collapse, as the economy stagnates and young Italians continue to emigrate.

The 2011 strike organized by Yvan Sagnet, a young Cameroonian student-turned-farmworker in the southern Italian tomato fields, remains a key moment in Italian labor history. Today, racist attacks have again brought immigrant worker organizing to the fore. In early June, the Malian trade unionist Soumayla Sacko was murdered while collecting materials to fortify the informal encampment where he and his fellow farmworkers lived. His union, the Union Sindicale di Base (USB), is a militant grassroots union active in migrant agricultural struggles throughout the country, and was one of the main organizers of the Rome march.

Towards a Political Vision

The far right is working on an international scale to implement a comprehensive anti-migrant politics. Brutal deterrence strategies, assaults on migrant workers’ rights, and racist violence are borrowed from one context to fit the other. Meanwhile, both the Italian and US left are largely stuck in a cycle of protest that merely responds to each new crisis. The Left must develop a comprehensive program of its own, which it can only do by noting how the Right is operating across national contexts.

This is a moment of incredible activation, globally — thousands of people, many of whom had never been politically active before, are becoming mobilized. In the United States, mothers and children have been occupying ICE offices and millions of dollars have been raised in crowding funding campaigns to support family reunification. There are pro-migrant actions in Italian cities every week and the Left is starting to develop a more unified response after a brutal electoral defeat. The Left’s task now is to deepen the empathy driving this solidarity and offer a compelling moral and political vision that ignites the imagination and the sense of hopeful urgency necessary for social transformation.