Admitting they arrived with pre-conceived notions of an immigrant unfriendly Lone Star State, Marco Consoli Mangano San Lio and Federico Pizzarotti expressed surprise at the pro-immigrant sentiment and humanitarianism they encountered on a visit late last month to El Paso, Texas.
On a multi-city U.S. tour as part of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, the young Italian political leaders headed to the Sun City to learn more about immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border. Accordingly, the Italian guests met with immigrant advocates, business leaders, journalists, El Paso County Sherriff Richard Wiles and members of the El Paso Police Department.
The deputy mayor of Catania, Sicily, Consoli Mangano San Lio noted the similarities between El Paso and his hometown in terms of their “gateway” roles for immigrants.
Catania, he said, is on the frontline in the current refugee/migrant crisis as tens of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East take to the Mediterranean Sea in desperate bids to escape war, repression, famine and environmental catastrophe. In short, a perfect social and political storm is sweeping the region.
Migrant advocates estimate that thousands have died making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats.
In a lengthy chat with FNS and staff members of the El Paso Times, Consoli Mangano San Lio and Pizzarotti shared their views on international migration, transnational organized crime, the changing political scene in Italy, and other issues.
With the aid of interpreter Lucia Mentani, Consoli Mangano San Lio informed the border journalists that his city of 340,000 people has received 170,000 migrants from abroad during the last two years alone. The population influx has strained the community’s services and infrastructure, he said.
Italy’s national government once provided Catania with financial assistance to help the migrants and refugees but later pulled back, even as a “powder keg” primed in Sicily, the 37-year-old representative of Italy’s Democratic Party said.
The current Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has stepped back up to the plate, while the national government is assigning migrant relocation quotas to all the different regions of Italy so no one place gets overburdened, the Sicilian official added.
Pizzarotti, the 42-year-old mayor of Parma, a small city in northern Italy, said attitudes in his country differ about the migrants’ presence. “Many people say they don’t want (migrants),” Pizzarotti said. “They say it’s not our problem.”
Most of the migrants and refugees in Italy are in transit, such as the Eritreans traveling to established immigrant communities in Germany (in a journey similar to the Central Americans who pass through Mexico en route to the United States), he said.
Defining migration as a continental matter not exclusive to Italy, Pizzarotti and Consoli Mangano San Lio lamented that no unified European policy prevails at the moment. On this score, Italy proposes the establishment of a pre-screening program in migrant-sending countries to identify persons who have legitimate reasons for relocating to Europe, whether due to political persecution or family reunification needs, Catania’s deputy mayor said, adding that Mali is ready to approve such a system.
Almost all of the migrants and refugees arriving in Italy first pass through the hands of smugglers in Libya, a place both Pizzarotti and Consoli Mangano San Lio described as immersed in “anarchy” with three separate (and armed) governments.
Prior to the 2011 NATO-assisted overthrow of the long ruling Gaddafi dictatorship, Libya was marked by a certain stability, the Italian politicians said. But in the political vacuum that followed, human traffickers found free reign, they added.
Gaddafi’s violent demise yielded unforeseen consequences not only for Libya but the region as a whole. Consoli Mangano San Lio told how, for example, the subsequent disappearance of a Gaddafi government pesticide spraying program on Libya’s southern border triggered a grasshopper plague in neighboring Mali that ruined the agricultural economy and fomented emigration.
Italy, of course, is no stranger to migration. In the late 1800s and into the middle half of the 1900s, Italy was a migrant-sending nation, with many families setting off in search of a better life in the Americas, especially in the United States and Southern Cone nations of South America.
Similar to many of today’s Mexicans and Central Americans, numerous Italian migrants hailed from impoverished rural communities, according to Pizzarotti. Remittances from Italians abroad allowed the country’s economy to survive “one of the most difficult periods of our history,” Consoli Mangano San Lio weighed in.
The two political leaders were impressed by the number of people with Italian heritage that they met in El Paso and other U.S cities. For Consoli Mangano San Lio, the migration experience has been a positive one for both Italy and the U.S. Italian immigrants in the U.S., he added, emerged as political leaders and “built the middle class,” while not forgetting their roots and aiding the “the building of democracy” back home. “Two countries became great countries-the U.S. and Italy,” he underscored.
“What struck us is that many Americans of Italian origin are more proud of their Italian heritage than Italians,” Pizarotti added with a chuckle.
On another important global issue, Pizzarotti and his Sicilian colleague shared some of Italy’s experiences in confronting and countering transnational organized crime. In response to a question from the El Paso Times, Consoli Mangano San Lio affirmed that ties between the Italian Mafia, Mexican drug cartels and U.S. Mafia families “have always been very strong,” but U.S.-Italian law enforcement cooperation combined with aggressive local investigations and prosecutions have weakened the power of organized crime.
Pizzarotti, however, cautioned that the modern Mafia has evolved into a white-collar enterprise with criminals involved in sophisticated rackets like waste collection. “No region in Italy is actually free of them,” he said.
Italy’s lengthy history with organized crime has been getting a lot of attention in Mexico and Latin America as of late. The car bombings and assassinations of Italian judges in the early 1990s draw parallels to Colombia during the same years and Mexico more recently.
An Italian organization, Libera, now works with the Latin American Social Alternative (ALAS) and the Retono Network with common goals of reforming the justice system, ending impunity and violence and curbing corruption. According to Mexico’s Proceso magazine, ALAS met for the first time in Mexico City last May. Money laundering and assets seizures are high on the agendas of the anti-crime networks.
Although both Italy and Mexico have laws allowing the confiscation of ill-gotten gains, the disposition of seized properties is different in the two countries.
In a recent story, Proceso reported that Italian authorities had seized 7,500 properties connected to organized crime during the last 15 years. The confiscations included hotels, restaurants, pizzerias, vineyards, factories, and more.
According to the Italian visitors to the Paso del Norte, civil society organizations can petition the court for confiscated assets.
Pizzarotti recalled a confiscated condo in Parma. “We have transformed that into housing for low-income people,” he said. Another difference between the Mexican and Italian systems rests with the direct involvement of elected officials authorities and law enforcement officers in court trials, which authorities attend as a way of showing their faces and sending a message. Consoli Mangano San Lio, who is a lawyer by training, added that he personally has appeared in courtrooms and asked judges to seize assets as a measure to protect the community’s interests.
Both political leaders agreed that multi-sided efforts at countering the underworld have produced an atmosphere in which people no longer fear speaking out against the Mafia.
Youthful and with global perspectives, Marco Consoli Mangano San Lio and Federico Pizzarotti are two of the faces of early 21st century Italian politics. Along with interpreter Lucia Mentani, the two men touched on the crisis of political legitimacy and parties that’s rattling Italy, Mexico, the United States and many other countries in the world. In the Italian case, they said citizens prefer to identify with movements or grassroots initiatives.
Consoli Mangano San Lio emphasized his association with the Citizens’ List of the Democratic Party, while the 42-year-old Pizzarotti recounted how he decided to run for office after working at a bank and in information technology. Pizzarotti was a successful mayoral candidate for the Five Star Movement, a newer political grouping launched by a professional comic that even eschews the word “party” and is known for its stands against Western military intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts and in favor of a free and open Internet.