NPR logo Poggioli: Letter from Europe

Poggioli: Letter from Europe

While the struggle for equal treatment in the US has a long and storied history, the push for civil rights in Europe is barely out of its infancy. Between questions of national identity and the global economic crisis, immigration is likely to rise again to the top of many nations' political agendas. A recent survey explored the differences and the similarities surrounding the immigration debate in America and in Europe.

According to the survey by the German Marshall fund, both Americans and Europeans are anxious most of all about illegal immigrants who represent only a small portion of the whole. While almost half the American respondents are convinced the majority of immigrants in their country are illegal, nearly 70 percent of Italians have that same belief of immigrants in their own country.

Large majorities of both Europeans and Americans believe immigrants should have knowledge of the national language and have a job offer before being admitted into their countries. But Americans and Europeans differ on solutions- most Europeans favor deportation of illegal immigrants-with a peak of 64 percent in Britain — while Americans slightly favor their legalization.

The survey results reflect opposing perceptions about foreigners - America is a country founded by immigrants. In Europe's ethnic-based societies this is a very recent phenomenon. In contrast to the American respondents, the majority of Europeans believe immigrants will increase crime and do not help the economy create new jobs.

Another key difference is that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe citizenship is very important to one's national identity, compared to only 48 percent of Europeans. In fact, in Europe, the concept of citizenship is still overshadowed by ethnicity and skin color. Minorities - even if second or third generation - are perceived as foreigners - having a European passport is not an automatic seal of national identity as is an American one. Europe's minorities have close to no political representation at the national and local levels and their jobless rates are much higher than the national averages.

An American in Europe is often shocked at the insensitivity - to the say the least - toward race and ethnicity. Here, racist language and stereotyping are common and openly expressed in the media and society at large. One German town went so far as to organize an African cultural festival ... in a zoo, saying it was the ideal place to convey the necessary "exotic atmosphere". And there are some areas in Italy that recall the segregated American South of the 1960's, where blacks feel so intimidated they usually ride at the back of the bus.

The immigrant as the perennial outsider is one of the major themes of a new body of second and third generation literature. In her short story "Sausages", the Italo-Somali writer Igiaba Scego describes the internal turmoil of a Sunni Somali woman - a longtime Italian citizen — who strives to be accepted. Defying an Islamic taboo, she buys pork sausages and asks the butcher, "if I eat these sausages one by one, will people understand that I am Italian like them?"