December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Seriously busted

By |2018-03-21T18:18:46+01:00April 1st, 2005|Features Archive|
A U.S. passport will get you only so far...

ditor’s note: Amanda is an assumed name for an actual individual interviewed at length by The American. It is used to protect her privacy.

Last spring, Amanda had a good life. Like many American, British and commonwealth citizens who come to Italy on a whim, the 27-year-old Australian national from Brisbane looked forward to a two week vacation. Then came a string of fortuitous meetings and chance encounters that gave her an unexpected toehold in the film industry. Within months of her February 2004 arrival, Amanda, ethnically half-Chinese, landed a role in a RAI Fiction television film, had a respected agent, and was romantically involved with an Italian assistant director.

Amanda remembers thinking it might all be happening too fast, and too easily. She worried about her legal status and her right to work in Italy. But how could she turn down the opportunity of a lifetime? “I can extend my holiday and get paid at the same time, and see more of Italy,” she recalls reasoning.

Serendipity was on her side. “I was walking on the street,” she says of her tourist days, “and I met this director who asked me to be in his film.” The director sought an actress of Asian descent for “Il Giorno del Lupo: Vendetta Cinese” and invited Amanda to try out for the role of a police inspector from Hong Kong who travels to Italy to avenge the death of her brother, only to fall in love with her Italian counterpart. After agreeing to Kung Fu lessons, Amanda got the part in the film, which is scheduled to air in September on RAI Due.

Amanda’s vacation was changing shape. “I ended up doing the film in Bologna,” she says, “and when I got back [to Rome] I did another casting with [director] Antonello Grimaldi.” That was for the November RAI film “La Moglie Cinese,” and she got that part too. “So the work was coming.”

So was trouble. A year after her best moment, Amanda now faces deportation from Italy for violating immigration laws.

Officials examining Amanda’s request for work documents at her local Questura, or police headquarters, pointed out that her work visa request had to originate in Australia, not Rome. Moreover, she had been employed while holding a tourist visa, which is illegal. “They just cut me short,” she says of her bid to fix her status. “They told me you have 15 days to leave the country.” That was in early February. So far, she has stalled.

Amanda’s case, filled with ambiguities and misunderstandings, is a worst-case scenario for non-European Union citizens from prosperous nations who try to make ends meet in a country whose work visa laws seem obtuse and easy to ignore, until something goes wrong — as it did for Amanda.

Just how many “white collar” clandestine workers reside in Italy on the margins of legality is hard to know for sure. Local authorities normally don’t seek them out and few will volunteer that they are earning money bereft of proper documents.

With much of Italy’s political and legal attention focused on how to regulate immigration from less developed countries such as Romania, Morocco and Albania, situations such as Amanda’s rarely make headlines.

They instead become a kind of expatriate lore, cautionary tales passed on by word of mouth with names rarely mentioned. But Amanda’s story, and similar ones, offer intriguing insight into how Italian immigration law works, and sometimes breaks down.

Amanda was not illegal when she touched down in Rome. As a non-EU citizen, she had a standard-issue 90-day tourist visa. Most EU nations permit non-EU nationals to enter on this basis, though some nations — Britain foremost among them — generally challenge visitors to provide proof of passage out of the country.

By the time Amanda’s tourist stay expired in June, she was preparing to work — legally, she was led to believe. The film’s producers, she says, obtained a temporary permesso di soggiorno per lavoro, a work permit valid for the duration of a work contract. In her case, the permit gave her a second 90 day pass and the right to work legally and pay taxes on her earnings through the duration of the summer production.

“Even after the film finished they extended it for another three months,” she says, which meant that her legal status seemed secure through December 31, 2004.

But when the time came to get her paperwork for the second film, requiring a further extension, Amanda got a shock. “When I started working for this other production, “La Moglie Cinese,” [the producers] tried to extend the permesso but it was refused.”

It was then that she was told about needing work documents issued in her country of origin and ordered out of the country.

On paper, an expulsion order is peremptory, requiring departure within 15 days of its receipt. Defy it and you face the risk of being escorted to the border by the police and being slapped with a five-year entry ban. “At least give me two months, you know, or 30 days, not 15 days for me to leave,” she says.

Australian Embassy officials in Rome can do little for Amanda, nor has she sought them out. “There could be a million and one reasons why her permesso was denied, ”says the embassy’s vice consul, John Leonardi, who is not familiar with the specifics of Amanda’s case. He noted that the embassy’s website openly warns of the consequences of failing to follow Italian procedures. “It says that if there are issues with your visa there is a risk of deportation,” he says.

Ask around, and Amanda-like stories spill out, though many tell them gingerly, demanding secrecy to avoid possible reprisals. “One [American] guy in Venice was deported,” a former U.S. Consular officer, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in an email. “He was allegedly ‘observing’ cooking techniques in a restaurant, but the police said he was working without a permit … he was sent home.”

Marlow Hoffman can sympathize. Hoffman, who now resides in Boise, Idaho, lived and worked in Rome for 18 months with her boyfriend, Luke. Both were tour guides; neither had work visas. Three years ago, while the couple was traveling in Norway, a random screening by immigration police revealed they had been in Italy well beyond the expiration of their tourist visas. They were summarily ordered out of Europe.

She was given three days to put her Rome affairs in order while Luke was placed on the first U.S.-bound flight from Norway. “They had to physically watch him board the plane,” she wrote in an email from Boise. “I went back to Italy, packed as many as my and Luke’s belongings as possible, and returned home.”

Norwegian officials were merely following immigration legislation that governs all 15 Schengen Pact countries, including Scandinavian nations, Italy, France and Spain. The pact allows unrestricted entry among EU citizens but not to those from nations outside the pact. It also compels non-EU citizens without legal visas return to their country of origin after three months in an EU nation and stay there for at least 90 days.

Had Hoffman not been caught in Norway, she says she feared Italian officials would have eventually discovered her. “I was worried about being illegal, but mainly because we were all working as tour guides,” she wrote. “Our friend Brett did get deported from Italy. He can’t go back for 10 years.”

The romantic idea of citizens from affluent nations idling in Italy without the proper documents is taking a beating.

“You hear on a regular basis of people being deported,” says Leah Howe, a former New Yorker who has lived in Rome since 1997. “It was easy to stay here five years ago, it’s not easy anymore.”

When Howe first moved here at age 17, legality was the furthest thing from her mind. She’d found work easily, first in a hostel, then as an English teacher — her Italian employers never asked her if she was legal. Eventually she found work in a bar where the owner required that staff have a tessera sanitaria, a kind of medical insurance that requires a permesso di soggiorno to obtain. On advice from friends, she traveled to a small town in Tuscany where she says she was issued the document without being asked to show a permesso.

Such casual days are gone, Howe says. “Without proper papers I would be afraid to ask for a job in a bar. First, no one would give me a job, and second, I would be slightly afraid that someone would get me in trouble.”

Howe has since taken advantage of her mother’s English background to obtain a British passport, which allows her to work legally.

While rooting out and expelling “working backpackers” is not high on Italy’s immigration agenda, recent laws are making it far more difficult to ignore the rules with impunity. In July 2002, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government ushered in the controversial Bossi-Fini Law on immigration and asylum. It stipulates that foreigners who fail to renew visas or permits within 60 days of their expiration, or whose permits have been revoked or invalidated, are subject to deportation.

U.S. Embassy officials in Rome say they receive frequent requests by Americans regarding how to work legally in Italy. Their answer is always the same: Go home. Once there, applicants bidding for new visas or renewals must present the necessary paperwork to the local Italian consulate and await their processing, which can take weeks or months.

The process is frustrating and confusing enough that the American Embassy offers a stark disclaimer on its website. It reads: “American consular officers are not trained in Italian law and consequently are not qualified to interpret it. Consult the Italian Embassy or an Italian consulate in the U.S. for information on Italian laws.”

Questions regarding details of the laws faxed to officials at the Interior Ministry in Rome, which enforces immigration legislation, went unanwered over a two-week-long period.

Rome resident Linda Somma, who is of Italian-American heritage and holds both U.S. and Italian citizenship, is familiar with the difficulties of complying with Italian law. “The problem is if you go to the same office three times and talk to three different people, you often get three different answers,” she says.

When she moved from the United States to Rome 13 years ago, she did everything by the book, a process that took nearly six months and began with obtaining her Italian passport from the Italian consulate near her Andover, Massachusetts. home. “I was going back and forth to the consulate in Boston every couple of weeks,” she says.

Once in Rome, getting an identity card also posed obstacles. “Thirteen years ago things weren’t computerized and so it was a really long process.” But the time and effort was worth it, she says. “I just wanted to live here legally because I knew it was going to make my life easier.”

Somma has little sympathy for those in Amanda’s situation. She believes they consider working in Italy to be a right, not a privilege. “I think the majority have a little bit of cash on them,” she says. When the cash runs low, they seek work. “You can’t just come to Italy and expect to work.”

Giovanni Papperini, who practices international law in Rome, says the stricter laws also reflect an end to Italy’s time-honored deference to the allure of foreign currency — particularly U.S. dollars. “The [illegal residents] wonder why they can’t just stay if they aren’t hurting anyone. They think it is sufficient to bring money to the country,” Papperini says. “That used to be enough, but it’s not enough anymore.”

He senses that some visitors are unable to remove Italy from an idealized realm. “They see Italy as two different worlds: the pleasant Italy and the Italy of government and rules,” he said. “[They] have a problem with bureaucracy.”

Amanda, meanwhile, continues weighing her options, which include marrying her boyfriend, Alessandro, who is an Italian citizen. But marriage is no quick-fix. Wives do not receive the automatic right to work through wedlock.

Nor is the marriage process easy. It can take months, with days spent in government offices to get the proper paperwork and notarizations. Among the required documents is proof of recent entry into Italy, such as a plane ticket, visa or permesso. Then, the intention to marry must be posted legally for at least two weeks to ensure no legal challenges exist. A newly-wed foreigner can apply for a permesso per motivi familiari or Italian citizenship approximately six months after the ceremony. Once again, the process is lengthy.

Amanda says she was told she could become a cleaning lady, “because as a cleaning lady, apparently you can come here and work and you can do anything you want.”

Not so.

A permesso per lavoro autonomo — the kind a domestic cleaner would seek — is difficult to obtain. According to the Interior Ministry website, “This kind of visa is authorized within the number of quotas established by decree each year. Therefore applications for this type of visa can only be accepted if there is still availability of authorized positions.”

Determining whether quotas are filled is by itself difficult. Even if a quota category is open, applicant lists are usually long and the application process time-consuming.

One rarely-discussed option is purchasing a black market permesso. Such permits, real or forged, are said to cost up to €7,000.

While Amanda insists she’s not desperate (she continues seeking Italian work despite her illegal status), the situation weighs heavily on her mind. “My main concern is that … I’m starting a career, you know, something that seems to be working, and I’m quite excited about this and now they’re taking it away from me,” she says.

Though Amanda’s case remains unresolved, she is in danger of being trapped in supreme irony. In her first RAI film, which began her odyssey, she plays a character from abroad who comes to Italy and falls in love, but in the end must return home.

— Jessica Ricci contributed to this report.

About the Author:

Angela Ellis is a former network television news producer for NBC in New York. In Rome, she co-produced a 2-hour documentary special for the Discovery Channel on the DNA investigation of an Egyptian pharaoh, and field-produced for several national and international channels. As a freelance writer, she wrote several chapters for Avalon Travel's Moon Metro Rome 2005 edition and for travel websites. She moved to Rome in 2003 to pursue a Master’s degree in International Relations at St. John’s University. She also has a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University New York. In 2007 she returned to New York, where currently she is a producer for NPR’s multimedia news show, the Bryant Park Project.