Rules, Paper, Status
Migrants and Precarious Bureaucracy in Contemporary Italy
Anna Tuckett



Extract from fieldnotes, December 2009

I arrive at the questura1 (the immigration office) at 7:45 a.m., much later than everyone else. The entrance’s steel gates are open, revealing a concrete slope leading up to the long and flat immigration office building situated at the police headquarters. Metal barriers snake around the slope, forcing people into an orderly but bulging line as they wait for a police officer to hand out numbers. The numbers are for appointments to collect permits, submit applications, and various other processes and procedures. From the size of the queue, it is evident that people started to arrive some time ago. It is freezing, although there is some warmth created by the large number of people crammed inside the barriers. There are all sorts of people waiting: old, young, and groups of families with small children and strollers. Most people are tightly clasping plastic folders filled with paperwork.

At 8:00 a.m. a policeman emerges. His manner is aggressive as he waves the raffle-style tickets in the air and asks people to calm down and stop pushing; he has plenty of numbers to distribute, he states. Confusion is paramount, as people are unsure what the ticket numbers refer to. At one point the policeman says the tickets he is distributing are only for the afternoon. I repeat this to Ahmed, an Algerian man who is standing next to me in the queue, but he seems to think otherwise.

After the numbers have been distributed, some people leave to get coffee, but most wait for the immigration office to open. We stand around in the small courtyard directly in front of the building observing the well-dressed police officers purposefully entering and exiting the adjacent buildings that house other police departments. At around 8:30 a.m. the immigration office opens and people begin to shuffle in. It is a long corridor-like room with strip lighting and very limited seating, and it soon fills up. After a while, Ahmed and I go outside, joining others who can no longer bear the cramped and oppressive atmosphere inside.

Figure 1. Photograph of a questura. Photograph by author.

At about 8:35 we rush back in as they start to call the first appointment times and corresponding names. Ahmed explains to me that the people who are being called are those with appointments to provide their fingerprints for permit renewal. The appointments are scheduled every minute, which explains the huge backlog. Although it is still only 8:35, the police officers call the names of those with appointments up to 8:45. I realize that those with the earliest appointments are in the best position, since the next roll of names (those with appointments for 8:49 and later) are not called until after 10:00.

By 11:00 a.m. there is an increasing sense of chaos because those with the early appointments (and also those with the later appointments, as everybody arrives early) have now been waiting since 8:30. People are becoming tired, and the sound of small children’s crying rises above the loud din of the crowd. Just after 11:00 a different policeman starts calling out the names. His manner is aggressive and intimidating, his large physique lending extra menace. Under his breath Ahmed mumbles, “This one is tough [duro].” Taking a different approach from the first officer, he calls people by their names. This slows down the roll call as people struggle to hear through the noise and mispronunciation. The tension, frustration, and confusion mount, and people begin to complain to the policeman. He quickly becomes angry and tells people to calm down and move away from the door. Responding to the crowd’s lamentations, he says that there is one appointment scheduled for every minute and they simply cannot work any faster.

Figure 2. People waiting inside a questura. Photograph by author.

The use of space exacerbates the intimidating atmosphere. More metal barriers divide the long room, and at tense moments people are rudely told to stay behind the barrier. At one point, a policewoman harshly shouts: “You are like crocodiles! Don’t you see the barrier? Get outside!” At other times, toward the end of the morning when the crowds have diminished, people flout the rules: they stick their heads around the door to see what is going on or lean against the front wall on the forbidden side of the barrier.

In the pauses, between the episodes of number calling, the mood relaxes slightly and fleeting camaraderie develops among the waiting. Conversations turn to past experiences of long waits, horror stories of being issued expired permits, and accounts of how early people woke up in order to receive a number. During the exchange of these stories people raise their eyebrows and shake their heads; their anxiety is accompanied by annoyance about the chaos and delays.

At 11:30 a.m. the appointments from 9:26 a.m. are announced. At this point most people have been waiting on their feet for three hours inside the questura and since 5:00 a.m. in the queue outside. As the morning nears lunchtime, the tension starts to lift. There are fewer people waiting, and those who have been there all morning slump against the walls, exhausted. When I leave at 1:15 p.m., the last few people have been called and the room is empty.

Immigration, and how to control it, is perceived to be one of the biggest concerns currently facing the world. Since the early 1970s, when a long phase of foreign labor recruitment ended, immigration to Europe has largely become a story of allegedly unwanted migration (Finotelli and Sciortino 2013). Migration flows have become increasingly bureaucratized and regulated in efforts to restrict and control the number and “type” of migrants allowed entry. Increased regulation has led to the emergence of what Xiang and Lindquist (2014) label migration infrastructures, which exist within and across nation-state borders. The migration infrastructure includes interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate, regulate, and condition the migration process. Migration, in other words, is “intensively mediated” (Xiang and Lindquist 2014: 124). Drawing on in-depth ethnographic research conducted in Italy, one of Europe’s biggest receiving countries, this book homes in on one aspect of the migration infrastructure, what I call the documentation regime: the nexus of documents, paperwork, and legal and bureaucratic processes that migrants must engage with in their efforts to become and stay “legal,” to bring family members into the country, and to attain citizenship.

While there has been much focus on the regulatory mechanisms that must be negotiated when migrants cross borders (Andersson 2014; Collyer 2012; Feldman 2012; Xiang and Lindquist 2014), the initial act of migration is only the start of what becomes a long and enduring relationship with migration bureaucracy. In large part this is because, across different destination settings, secure—or any kind of—legal status is increasingly difficult to attain; migrants must continuously and enduringly navigate the “host” country’s “webs of administration” (Reeves 2013: 511) in order to become or remain documented. Arriving in the host country and obtaining one’s initial permit, therefore, is only the first of many interactions with immigration bureaucracies. Even in cases where migrants manage to attain permanent citizenship, encounters with the documentation regime continue through their efforts to support family and friends.

Through ethnographic research conducted with migrants, immigration advisers and advocates, brokers, officials, and others within the immigration nexus in Italy, I examine everyday encounters with the immigration bureaucracy and the diverse processes of inclusion and exclusion it engenders. Although encounters with the immigration bureaucracy are characterized by frequently changing laws, discretionary implementation, and unlawful practice, the bureaucracy’s precarious nature also allows a certain degree of flexibility. In the Italian context, successful navigation of the immigration bureaucracy involves taking advantage of loopholes, cultivating contacts, and knowing when and how to bend the rules. Moving away from debates about whether immigration policies “work” or not, this book shows that these informal strategies of navigation are productive in other ways. On the one hand, they produce affective and meaningful outcomes for migrants and those who work on their behalf. These include measurable results such as legal status, material profit, friendships, solidarity, and professionalism, as well as the more abstract values of cultural citizenship, political subjectivity, and self-worth. On the other hand, these individualized strategies are limited in their ability to challenge the broader structural, economic, and legal frameworks in which migrants and their labor are made and remade as marginal. Although such strategies offer individual migrants certain opportunities, they also reproduce the structural inequalities they are attempting to overcome.

This book explores the dynamic tensions created by the divergent affects and meanings produced through encounters with the Italian immigration bureaucracy. It offers insights into the disjunctures produced by bureaucracies in general, and by immigration regimes in particular. By learning to navigate the immigration bureaucracy, migrants become cultural insiders, yet exclusionary laws can transform this social and cultural learning into the very thing that endangers their right to live in the country.

A note on the term “illegal”

Throughout the book I sometimes use quotation marks around the terms “legal” and “illegal” when referring to migrants with or without permits in order to emphasize the arbitrariness of these seemingly strict categories. These statuses are the product of legal and political processes and are not accurate descriptive terms for people (Andersson 2014: 17; Coutin 2000; De Genova 2002). The status “illegal” does not exist outside of the state but is formed by and exists in relation to it (De Genova 2002: 422). I use these terms for two reasons, in spite of both their offensiveness and their inaccuracy. First, they are emic terms used by my interlocutors (alongside the term clandestino [clandestine]). And, second, in employing these terms together with ethnographic data, I hope to show how they are constructed, shifting, and contingent. Migrants’ everyday encounters with immigration law highlight the temporariness and fluidity of the categories “legal” and “illegal,” as well as “official” and “unofficial.” Law creates “illegality” by its definitions; illegal practices are in fact necessary in order to fulfill legal requirements. By closely examining the ways that policies play out in everyday life, I show how these categories are not only constructed but also mutually productive.

Needed but not wanted: migrants in Italy

In comparison with some of its other European neighbors, Italy was a relative latecomer as a destination for migrants, but in the past decade it has become one of the main receiving countries in Europe (see figure 3). The migrants discussed throughout this book are those whom Italians consider to be immigrati (immigrants) or extracomunitari (non-EU citizens). Extracomunitario is an ideologically loaded term. It refers to a non-EU citizen, but the term is primarily used to refer to migrants from the global South and post-Soviet countries, notwithstanding their home country’s EU member status. For example, Romanians and Poles, who are EU citizens, are labeled extracomunitari, while Australians and Americans, who are technically extracomunitari, are not labeled in such a manner. Accordingly, the term refers to migrants who are deemed to originate from less-developed nations, and its use is related to the notion that migrants are low-level workers, criminals, or objects of charity.

As the widespread use of extracomunitario indicates, migrants have not been universally welcomed onto the nation’s shores, but low birth rates and a very large aging population make their presence crucial. As “useful invaders” (Ambrosini 1999) migrants fill positions that Italians—with ever increasing levels of education—refuse to. These largely include manual labor jobs in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, the service industry, and domestic work. As Emilio Reyneri observes, “Immigrants tend to be concentrated in jobs where conditions are hard, requiring physical strength, willingness to do shift-work, and where occupational hazards are high (Reyneri 2004a: 78). The demand for unskilled manual labor in the Italian economic context, alongside young natives’ unwillingness to do such work, explains how high local unemployment coexists together with high rates of immigrant employment (Ambrosini 2001: 54; Reyneri 2004a). Kitty Calavita (2005a: 73) notes, “They are part of the same phenomenon of a late capitalism that is made up of pre-Fordist and post-Fordist work, with little in between.” That is, the domestic work and agricultural sectors that are overwhelmingly dominated by migrants are based on pre-Fordist employment relations, yet exist in a context of a post-Fordist globalized economy where the principle of flexibility—or precarity—rules. Labor in the small and medium-sized enterprises typical of Italian capitalism, meanwhile, are hybrid spaces of pre- and post-Fordist labor relations and employment structures. The effect of this combination, argues Calavita, “helps explain the paradox of high local unemployment and high immigrant employment: too few good jobs and too many bad ones” (74). While young Italians, who are able to rely on their parents, can wait for better opportunities to arise, migrants fill the badly paid, precarious, and low-status jobs.

Figure 3. Largest numbers of nonnationals living in EU member states on January 1, 2016. Data from Eurostat.

Scholars have argued that the stigmatization of, and discrimination toward, migrants must be understood in the context of Italy’s peculiar relationship with nationhood and nationalism. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that an Italian nation-state was constructed from historically diverse regions (Grillo and Pratt 2002: 11). Regionalism is a significant feature in understanding identity and nationalism in Italy, and Italians often identify more strongly with their region than with the nation as a whole (Pratt 2002; Stanley 2008: 46). Conversation in Italy frequently revolves around the variations in food, language, and culture in different regions. “To be Sicilian, Piedmontese or Neapolitan is not only a matter of geographical origin but also carries strong cultural identities” (Maritano 2002: 62).

In addition to regional differences, the country’s north-south split is also highly significant. A considerable body of literature has analyzed the “southern question” as a key component of the Italian reaction to outside immigration (Giordano 2008; King and Mai 2002; Mai 2003; Maritano 2002; Pratt 2002). The title of Jane Schneider’s 1998 book Italy’s “Southern Question”: Orientalism in One Country reflects the legacy of exclusion and prejudice that lies at the heart of questions of Italian nationhood. The south has historically been stigmatized by the north as lazy, backward, and “African” (Pratt 2002: 30): it is commonly referred to as the mezzogiorno—land of the midday sun—and those who are from the south are derogatorily referred to as terroni (country bumpkins). Nicola Mai and others have argued that the stigmatization of southerners has been “translated on” to modern-day non-EU migrants (Giordano 2008: 590; King and Mai 2002; Mai 2003; Maritano 2002; Pratt 2002).

As these analysts have suggested, this is part of a discourse that aims to present contemporary Italy as compatible with a new-EU, post-Maastricht identity: “The representation of the arrival and presence of foreign immigrants worked to construct a positive image of Italian people in terms of efficiency, tolerance and civility through the devaluation and criminalization of the image and identity of the newcomers” (Mai 2003: 83). In this context, these scholars have argued that migrants have come to represent the ultimate “other.”

With its focus on the entry and control of flows of migrants, rather than on the potential for meaningful integration (Cachafeiro 2002), the media have played a key role in perpetuating and normalizing anti-immigrant sentiment (Mai 2002). The right-wing separatist party the Lega Nord (Northern League), which has taken advantage of people’s fear of immigration in order to promote its political platform (Geddes 2008; King and Andall 1999: 154; Zaslove 2004), is a key player in refining and perpetuating the normalization of an exclusionary and discriminatory discourse. In his work on migrants’ political participation, Davide Però (2002: 96) has explored how the Left is also to blame for the normalization of such anti-immigrant discourse. In his study of the Forum—a project based in Bologna that aims to enable migrants to voice, organize, and channel their politics—Però argues that, as well as the Right, the mainstream Left in Italy has “contributed to the construction of immigrants as political minors.” He notes that there exists a sharp discrepancy between the Left’s inclusionary multicultural rhetoric and its exclusionary everyday practice, which—rooted in paternalism and essentialism—ultimately constructs migrants as second-class, ethnically marked subjects. Giovanna Zincone (2006a: 13) likewise discusses the limitations of movements supporting migrants’ rights. She notes that although campaigns to improve the basic rights and legal status of migrants do exist, the “commitment to political and citizenship rights for long term residents is less tenacious.” Similarly, other scholars have noted that because advocacy on behalf of migrants is focused on emergency situations, often dominated by Catholic associations, the assistance migrants receive tends to be aimed at helping to achieve short-rather than long-term ends (Cole and Saitta 2011: 528; King and Andall 1999: 152). Such advocacy on behalf of migrants is thus paternalistic in nature and does not challenge the unequal inclusion that they encounter.

Encouraged by inflammatory media and a normalized discourse about discrimination, politicians limit their discussions about immigration to the perceived need to control borders and emergency solutions, rather than focusing on the potential for meaningful social inclusion. When advocacy does take place, it is not concerned with rights but instead focuses on offering basic care, which only works to perpetuate means of differentiation. These social and political attitudes are reflected and contradicted in immigration law and policy.


1. Questura is the police headquarters where the immigration office is located. Questura is the singular, questure is the plural.