“Relax your hand,” the policeman said, as he rolled my ink-smeared thumb across the card.
I apologized and explained that I’d never been finger-printed before.
The officer was surprised. “Not even in your country?”
“No,” I said. “There, it only happens if you get arrested. Which I’ve never been.”
Though I’ve lived in Italy for over three years, with an open-ended visa on account of my marriage to an Italian citizen, my status as an “extracommunitarian” immigrant (i.e., from outside the European Union) means that my finger- and palm-prints now have to be on file with the authorities. That’s one of the requirements of an immigration law that the Italian parliament passed in July.
The foreign-born make up only 2.5 percent of Italy’s population (compared to 10 percent of America’s), but as elsewhere in Europe these days, anxiety over immigration here is growing. Politicians blame immigrants for sponging off the welfare state, stealing jobs from natives, and committing a disproportionate share of crime. Italy’s new law purports to address these problems by making it harder to get in and stay, and by putting those admitted under increased surveillance.
Not all foreigners arouse the same level of anxiety, though. People from North Africa and the Balkans, especially Albania, are generally less popular than, say, Filipinos. And few Italians have accused immigrants from the First World of lowering the quality of life here. Legislators openly considered giving aliens from the U.S., Japan and Australia a finger-print exemption, but evidently decided that this would look like favoritism toward the rich.
Finger-prints aren’t the only information that the police are now supposed to get on foreigners. On the same form, I noticed a blank reserved for “nicknames.”
Recalling the things I’ve been called over the years, the most exciting I could come up with were “X-Man” and “Rocca Gibraltar.” Pretty lame compared to “Vinnie the Snake” or “Two-Fingers Tony,” and in any case, so out of date that they’d be of no use in tracking me down. As it happens, my interrogator didn’t ask me for them anyway.
“False names” was another category on the form, and for a moment I wondered whether I should own up to the several articles I’ve written under pseudonyms. But the policeman didn’t ask about those either.
Under the heading “Physical imperfections (deformations, mutilations, etc.),” the officer wrote: “ample baldness.” Seeing this, I stifled the urge to object. That my baldness is ample, I won’t deny, but I’ve never seen it as an imperfection. On the contrary, I consider it a refinement, since it’s made me more sleek and aerodynamic than in my hairier days.
For me, the worst part of the process was staining my clothes when I unwittingly brushed against the ink pad. Having my finger-prints taken didn’t spook or offend me. But I surely would have felt otherwise if I belonged to one of those ethnic groups for whom the law was actually written. It must be galling to be treated like a potential criminal when your only crime is having left home to look for work.
Native-born Italians should also feel offended. As defenders of the law have pointed out, all Italian residents will have to get their finger-prints taken within a few years, for the new and computerized version of their national identity card.
Imposing the finger-print requirement on immigrants in advance is just a publicity stunt, a symbol of the government’s resolve to get tough on crime. This symbol is especially hollow since the people whose prints are being taken are, like me, people cooperating with the system. It’s illegal immigrants, not the legal kind, who are statistically overrepresented on the crime rolls.
The Italian politicians who made this law may or may not believe that most foreigners are scoundrels, but they clearly do believe that their own countrymen are idiots.