Voices

Italy’s First Black Legislator is Fighting Racism With New Immigration Laws

Cécile Kyengé is up against vile personal attacks, but says it's worth it in effort to protect Italy's most vulnerable.

by Alexis Chemblette
Jul 24 2017, 4:00pm

Image via Wikimedia Common

Cécile Kyengé's fate could inspire generations of Italian immigrants. Born to a polygamous father in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), she moved to Italy on a temporary visa when she turned 18. After graduating medical school, she worked as an ophthalmologist. But Kyengé's interests have always been elsewhere. During the unprecedented immigration wave of the 90s, she saw Italy's broken integration system confine millions to cities' edges. In response to rising populism, she embarked on a political journey shaped by her longstanding struggle for immigrants' rights and racial tolerance.

She quickly rose through the ranks of the Democratic party and was propelled into government as minister of integration in 2013. The appointment of Italy's first black minister enraged a political class steeped in racism. In Parliament, she was likened to an orangutan and bananas were thrown at her by far-right activists during public rallies. A member of Lega Nord - a neo-fascist separatist movement- published a Facebook status calling for her to be raped publicly. The slurs and threats she faced reflect the racial tensions that continue to plague Italian society.

But nothing discouraged her from trying to overhaul Italian immigration laws. She championed birthright citizenship and easier access to permanent residency. Kyengé currently serves as the only African-born member of the European Parliament. A staunch European federalist, she celebrates the EU's influence on Italian policy. But she regrets that her country didn't get more help to address the migrant crisis. VICE Impact met with her to discuss the state of Italy's integration system and solutions to promote diversity and racial justice.

VICE Impact: In Italy today would it be easier for someone with your background to accomplish what you did?

Cécile Kyengé: Italy's far behind. It's almost impossible for someone with my background to follow a similar career path. The context has changed, our laws have changed, and our integration system has faltered. For example, in 2001 a law was passed to link immigrants' fate to their economic status. As a result, an immigrant who gets fired after living here for decades faces automatic deportation.Today Italy hosts an increasing number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants for whom there is no legal path to residency or citizenship. The are five million people of foreign descent living Italy at the moment. Most of them have no visibility on their future, resulting in instability and trauma, especially for youth.

As minister of integration, what was at the top of your agenda?

My number-one priority was access to citizenship. It underpins social cohesion, racial inclusion, and successful integration. Two million Italian immigrants have permanent jobs and pay their fair share of taxes without being on a path to residency or citizenship. How can they assimilate into Italian society if the government taxes them to fund health care programs, but sidelines them from the national community?

I also pushed to give automatic citizenship to children born in Italy even if their parents were illegal immigrants. Under the current system, the Italian government invests in these kids until the age of 18 and then tells them they need to apply for citizenship with no certainty of success. These kids speak Italian, lived in Italy their entire lives, support Italian sports teams, but somehow they're still not considered Italian.


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How difficult is it for Italian immigrants to enter the job market?

Finding a job is the toughest thing for a young Italian immigrant. First, without papers, most aren't eligible to apply for one. Again since their fate is tied to their parents' legal situation, they end up in this grey area where they may be allowed to stay but are denied work. It's already difficult for young Italians in general to get a job, but no company will consider an applicant with a precarious visa.

Discriminatory hiring procedures are also a curse for young immigrants. There are laws in place to combat racial prejudice of course, but they are unfortunately never enforced. Most victims are not even aware of these laws, and seldom take the initiative to take action against employers that discriminated against them. The red line between freedom to choose and discrimination hasn't been entrenched in Italian society.

Are you saying that racism isn't penalized in Italy? You faced racists remarks yourself. How can a developed democracy like Italy tolerate that?

Most racist acts go unpunished. There is very little awareness of the laws in place. No one should suffer what I suffered in government. We must reaffirm the culture of diversity and inclusion within our institutions. To take [Roberto] Calderoli (Calderoli, the vice president of the Senate) to court, I needed the Senate to lift his parliamentary immunity. The Senate initially refused to do so, stipulating that his comments were "political opinions" when they were clearly inciting to racial hatred. We're now awaiting a verdict from the Constitutional Court of Italy. If he is found guilty, the decision can restore younger generations' faith in our justice system and encourage those who have endured similar abuses not to let it go.

In the US and other countries, politicians tried to tackle racial inequality with affirmative action. Is it applicable in Italy?

I'm personally in favor of affirmative action. But culturally we're not ready yet. Italy doesn't see itself as a nation of immigrants. In the short term it's unfeasible. However, the EU is working on implementing affirmative action and quota systems across Europe, so my best bet has been to push for affirmative action at the European level because it has a better chance of trickling down from Brussels than originating from Italian policy-making.

It's not just an Italian problem. Most European countries with a diverse population have yet to introduce such policies.

Kyengé at an EU event in Burkina Faso. (Photo via Office of Cécile Kyengé)

Has French President Emmanuel Macron's victory put an end to rising populism in Europe? What's the situation like in Italy?

These parties are still on the verge of power across the continent. In Italy, there are several factors at play. The economic crisis has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment. Austerity measures have spurred a war between the poor, a struggle between newcomers and native-born Italians on the losing side of globalization. There will always be people to blame for our country's sluggish economic recovery. That's why I believe in intersectionality. The fight for racial intolerance is deeply rooted in the struggle to curb income inequality and foster equal economic opportunity.

Second, there is a security crisis. Recent terrorist attacks have exacerbated the fear and perception that migrants and foreign-born Italians are a threat. Populism feeds off these concerns.

Third, there is an unprecedented migrant crisis and a European solidarity crisis. Italy doesn't feel supported by the European Union. There is a clause in EU treaties that responsibility to host migrants should be shared, but member states are not respecting it. The EU has added fuel to the fire by letting us handle it alone.

You have consistently claimed that Italy benefits from immigration. It's a brave stance to take considering even progressive parties are embarrassed to agree with you. Why insist ?

It's only natural. Immigration is part of mankind. It's a natural phenomenon that cannot and shouldn't be curbed. And it has greatly contributed to western economies. But it's not just economics: immigration shapes and enriches our culture. Short term solutions to control immigration are never successful anyways. As long as people are dying across the Mediterranean, migrants will be knocking on our door. We need to accept that demographics are changing and work toward better integration policies. It's the only solution.

The European Unions was founded on the values of liberty and hospitality. We have lost track. But obviously, we also need to reaffirm ties with neighboring countries in Africa and the Middle East, strengthen bilateral aid and incentivize private investments. This requires immense political will. Our politicians don't have it. They want to pander to their voters' worst fears. They think about electoral strategy when millions perish on our coastlines. We need to tackle the profound causes that compel people to abandon their homes. Because no one migrates by choice.

What is your message to Italy's immigrant and foreign-born youth ?

Follow your dreams, persevere and take advantage of what the situation has to offer. I accomplished my personal dream, which was to work as an ophthalmologist. Despite everything I went through, I remember that I could never have done it in my home country because there were no schools to train me. And I'm forever grateful to Italy's education system. I then entered politics to fulfill a bigger dream, a collective dream. So I want to tell them that they've been dealt a terrible hand, and people like me who are sensitive to their struggle will guide them. But they need to mobilize. They need to organize a peaceful revolt and weigh in on public debate. They can't rely on a handful of associations and politicians to echo their concerns. I want them to take control of their destiny.