ROME - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he does not want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country, drawing plaudits from a right-wing ally and criticism from center-left opponents.
Berlusconi, a conservative, faces a stiff challenge in next month's national election, with opinion polls putting him behind his opponent, former premier Romano Prodi.
The poor economy, a main worry for voters in this election, has fed concerns about immigration by right-wing parties in Berlusconi's coalition, although the kind of work usually done by immigrants is shunned by many Italians. Surveys show that some Italians also perceive immigrants as being linked to crime.
"We don't want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country. We are proud of our traditions," Berlusconi said Monday on state-run radio.
Berlusconi's government has put in place a tough immigration policy, including legislation cracking down on illegal immigration. The 2002 law allows only immigrants with job contracts to obtain residency permit.
"We want to open (our borders) to foreigners who flee countries where their lives or liberties are at risk," said Berlusconi, adding those who come to Italy to work also are welcome. "We don't want to welcome all those who come here to bring about damage and danger to Italian citizens."
Thousands of illegal immigrants come to Italy every year, mostly crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa on rickety boats. The latest group of more than 200 landed Monday on Lampedusa, a tiny island off Sicily.
Most immigrants, if they elude police, move on to other European countries.
The Northern League, a right-wing anti-immigrant party, welcomed Berlusconi's remarks.
"Here's the Berlusconi we want," said Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League leader who was forced to quit as reforms minister last month after he wore a T-shirt on state TV decorated with caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. "Our values, our identity, our history, our traditions" must be defended against immigration, the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.
Paolo Cento of the opposition Greens party criticized Berlusconi, saying "the multiethnic society is a reality and an asset that must be handled," ANSA said.
As much as I dislike Prodi's pro-European Union stance, it is about time that crook Berlusconi was kicked out of office and into jail.