We are used to thinking of ‘illegal’ migrants as others from us, so if you are Italian and live in Italy the ‘clandestino’ is always imagined as a dark skinned, male and young person who travelled to Italy by a perilous journey on a rickety boat. More left-leaning Italians add to this image also the fact that the person may have been exploited, smuggled and vulnerable. No doubt, this is true for some, but there are many more routes into the country, more routes into ‘illegality’ and certainly different degrees of poverty, vulnerability and exploitation among undocumented migrants (see Sans Papiers).
Each country has a slightly different version of the quintessential ‘illegal’, and I say ‘slightly’ because a quick overview will easily point to a ‘preference’ for dark skinned and poor people for this casting role. But it is not a matter of ‘imagination’ only.
As I have pointed out a number of times (see my TEDx talk), immigration enforcement acts on those stereotypical representations of ‘the illegal’ and contributes to reify them. In other words, when the UK’s Home Office send border officers in search of undocumented migrants to raid Chinese or Indian restaurants or Kebab shops in East London or Brixton or to wedding ceremonies of people with South Asian sounding names in search of ‘sham marriages’, well, it is not rocket science but one can reasonably guess that it is likely that, if they are going to find someone without papers, he/she is going to be Chinese, Indian, Kurdish or Pakistani. There may well be thousands of white Americans or Australians living in the UK despite expired visas, but for the Home Office and a large part of the population they are not imagined as undocumented migrants and, fulfilling its own prophecy, not raiding more ‘respectable’ bars, shops or department stores the Home Office is unlikely to find them.
This video interview published on the Italian broadsheet Corriere della Sera is fascinating because it challenges upfront exactly those stereotypes and the immigration enforcement practices that they inform and in turn are reproduced by. So here you have a 24 year old Italian who, in breach of the terms of his visa, works in a posh patisserie ‘regularly’ but on someone else ID documents. He is aware of Barack Obama’s DACA scheme but doesn’t fulfil the requirements – ‘I can’t wait five years’, he says. He wants to regularise his position to open a business in the States as in Italy there is no chance to get a bank to lend him money. He has considered his options and the most feasible one is to marry someone with a US passport and gain the Green Card through marriage. It is not that difficult, he says. Being Italian doesn’t make him an obvious target for immigration control. He has also chosen to go for a gay marriage, not because this captures the zeitgeist of Obama’s America (but there may be something not verbalised around this) but ‘because otherwise my girlfriend would be jealous’, he explains. ‘It is a mutually convenient arrangements’, he adds. His US spouse is going to get tax cuts and $20,000 from him, but in instalments, the final one to be paid when he eventually gets the Green Card and can fulfil his American dream. Acting on stereotyping on Southern backwardness and machismo, the journalist asks: ‘Is your Sicilian mum shocked by your decision to marry a man?’. ‘No, no problem about that, but she worries because if I get caught, I could get a huge fine or even go to prison’.
Not bad as an example of migrant agency, youthful entrepreneurship and risk taking that Alice Bloch, Roger Zetter and I describe in our book, of the double position of the migrant as both immigrant and emigrant discussed by the French Algerian sociologist Sayad, and of migrants’ responsiveness to opportunity structures in both country of origin and country of destination that diaspora studies scholars talk extensively in their work.