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The city of Florence, Italy takes pride in welcoming foreign migrants. Then came an incident last month. Two Africans were killed in the city. Italy's economic crisis has grown worse, leaving some Italians believing they have to compete with immigrants for a slice of a shrinking economic pie. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On December 13th, a known rightwing extremist opened fire in two separate marketplaces, leaving two Senegalese dead and seriously injuring three others. The killer then shot himself.
That day the San Lorenzo market was packed with people shopping for Florence's renowned leather goods. Vendor Roberto Ciacci is still stunned by what happened.
ROBERTO CIACCI: (Through translator) I'm anguished. This city has a strong progressive, anti-fascist legacy. I can't believe this could happen here.
POGGIOLI: The killings were carried out by a member of Casa Pound, a rightwing grouping named after the American poet Ezra Pound, known for his fascist sympathies and anti-Semitism. Casa Pound leaders distanced themselves from the killer. But Saverio di Giulio says his group rejects the concept of immigrants' assimilation.
SAVERIO DI GIULIO: (Through translator) We uphold the notion of Italian-ness, that spiritual and mystical union of our people that existed during fascism. We are opposed to domination by the international financial system that wants to erase national identities.
POGGIOLI: Nigerian Udo Enwereuzor files reports to the EU Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia. The ideas of Ezra Pound, he says, are gaining ground across the political spectrum.
UDO ENWEREUZOR: That part that criticizes big business, banks, has more chances of making headway attracting people on the left today because of the hardship.
POGGIOLI: Hardships that are beginning to affect Italians as well as foreign workers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: It's lunchtime at a soup kitchen run by the Catholic charity Caritas. Most here are foreigners, but the number of Italians has grown 30 percent in the last year or so.
As more Italians become jobless and even homeless, Caritas officials say, tensions are growing. Many Italians are seeking jobs in three areas long disdainfully relegated only to foreigners - domestic help and care of the elderly, agriculture and construction.
Sociologist Emilio Santoro, who teaches at the University of Florence, says they find that the majority of immigrants are paid one-third of what they should be getting by law and work very long hours.
EMILIO SANTORO: This is the problem because, I mean, they find a market which is based on dumping, social dumping, and then they have to accept the same salary as the foreign people.
POGGIOLI: The new job competition risks turning into a war pitting poor against poor. It comes after a decade of escalating anti-immigrant statements by officials, especially members of the xenophobic Northern League. One minister even suggested immigrants should be shot in the boats bringing them to Italian shores.
Assane Kebe, a representative of Florence's Senegalese community, says the crisis has made the climate even worse.
ASSANE KEBE: (Through translator) People are now blaming immigrants for the crisis. They say we take away jobs, housing, and even slots in nurseries because we have too many children.
POGGIOLI: Immigrants now face an even worse prospect: Italian legislation, severely criticized by the EU, stipulates that foreigners without a job for six months must be expelled together with their entire family, even those who settled here decades ago. Several hundred thousand legal immigrants now risk losing their papers.
But the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti wants to give them a reprieve and give them a year to find a new job. However, the government faces strong opposition in parliament from the Northern League and its conservative allies.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Florence.