The Immigration Office

The Ufficio di Immigrazione of Rome is in a remote location, so remote that it feels like a final test of the long journey of immigrants to Italy. One has to make their way to Termini, Rome’s central train station, then find a commuter rail out to Tor Sapienza, a dusty suburb on the outskirts of the comune. Then one has to trudge several dry, shoulderless roads, listing into the shrubs to avoid cars speeding past, finally arriving at the Ufficio di Immigrazione, an unceremonious government building surrounded by high, thick fences. 

When we arrived at 8:15am for my 8:30am appointment, carefully collated and photocopied folders full of the many documents I had been collecting since February to support my extended stay for PhD dissertation research in Italy, the first thing I noticed was the large crowd of immigrants, mostly men but some families, clamoring at the gate. There were two gates that permitted access, one for those with a signed appointment card, which I had secured at the post office in exchange for 300 Euros and a large pile of documents and application forms, and another gate for those without appointments.

The crowd pushed toward the second gate, most of them African, some Middle Eastern perhaps. Of course I was only guessing by skin color. I sensed many hard stories in that crowd, stories of people who had escaped God knows what kind of conditions and endured God knows what kind of conditions to arrive at this gate and push in a sweaty throng to beseech the Italian government for legal asylum and recognition, permission to work and feed their families. This group is only a tiny cross-section of immigrants who arrive daily on Italy’s shores. These people are venturing into the morass of Italian bureaucracy in order to get documented and stay in the country legally. These are the ones who are doing it right. It did not seem to me that the difficulty of their journey was close to alleviation. 

Despite the teeming throng everybody was quite orderly and polite, Italian military soldiers organizing careful lines and asking everybody their intents and purposes at the Ufficio di Immigrazione. I saw privilege asserting itself quietly as well-dressed white people were allowed to pass to the front of the line, in front of browner people who held signed appointment cards.

There were many lines: lines to get in the gate; lines to get in the building; lines to collect my paperwork on the fourth floor; lines to see the first immigration officer; lines to see the second immigration officer; lines for the bathroom. In the waiting room I sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair, waiting for my name to come up on the queue screen. The names flashing on the screen proved the diversity of my fellow immigrants: Steranida Sbaraglia, Nadya Buhayenko, Xiurong Huang, Santiago Gemma Rivera, Nabil Ahmed Harraz, Sanae Kaaouara, Maria Lourdes Luquez Martinez, Ibrahim Ahmed Ibrahim Moussalam. Jennifer Sue Lindsay. 

The bored, sweet immigration officer asked me strange questions. What was my birthplace Amarillo, Texas like? Did I miss American food? Do I play a musical instrument? The last question made more sense as he began to take my fingerprints and sang tunelessly as I pressed each finger on the electronic print reader: do re mi fa sol. The other hand: do re mi fa sol. 

The second immigration officer took many more fingerprint scans and scans of my entire hand, also seemingly bored by the job of scanning hands and being part of Italy’s immigration machinery, which handles the brunt of Europe’s immigrant entries and initial sojourns. 

Before I went down to the parking lot—thronged now with more new arrivals under the climbing summer sun—I collected myself in the bathroom. In front of the grey sinks some women in headscarves were crying in relief. They sobbed smiling sobs that sounded of suffering and deliverance. They seem to have garnered the Permit to Stay. I washed my hands and closed the bathroom door quietly behind me, hoping that their lives will be better in Italy than they were in God knows what conditions they come from. 

Photo courtesy of the author.

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