PALERMO, Sicily — Italy’s populist interior minister, Matteo Salvini, celebrated Parliament’s passage of his Security Decree to crack down on illegal immigration by assuring his supporters last year that “I won’t stop!”
But stopping Mr. Salvini is exactly what Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, the Sicilian capital, wants to do.
Passed with much fanfare late last year, Mr. Salvini’s Security Decree was intended to make Italy more unwelcoming to migrants, not least by doing away with two years of “humanitarian protection” for asylum seekers, a status that allowed them to live in the country legally.
Far from adding to security, says Mr. Orlando, 71, a veteran mayor and constitutional law professor who came to prominence in the fight against the mafia, the law risks pushing migrants into the shadows and the criminal underworld by denying them legal status as well as access to health care and other social services.
He has refused to apply the decree in a stand that has become a prominent part of a widening grass-roots resistance to Mr. Salvini’s hard line on immigration, which is increasingly dividing the country even as it has tightened the populist government’s hold on power.
On Friday afternoon, in defiance of the law, Mr. Orlando pushed through the first four applications by migrants seeking residency under their humanitarian status.
By signing their applications, Mr. Orlando hopes to invite a legal challenge by the government that he can take all the way to Italy’s highest court. He intends to argue that Mr. Salvini’s measures are unconstitutional and violate the migrants’ human rights.
“I cannot accept that you produce criminality,” Mr. Orlando said in an interview last month in his grand office, surrounded by gilded Islamic manuscripts, a letter from Pope Francis and a paperweight of the Dalai Lama.
Many liberal mayors across the country, from Naples to Florence to Milan, applauded Mr. Orlando’s intention to defy the government, which he first announced at the end of December.
Mr. Orlando’s office now hopes his action will clear the way for the mayors to create Italian versions of the sanctuary cities that sprouted in the United States in opposition to President’s Trump’s similarly minded crackdown on immigration.
This week, Tuscany, Umbria, Sardinia and the northern region of Piedmont filed a legal complaint against the Security Decree, charging that it actually increased criminal activity and decreased the possibility of economic integration.
In a further knock on the government, prosecutors in Sicily initiated an investigation of Mr. Salvini on charges of “kidnapping,” after his refusal to allow an Italian Coast Guard ship carrying migrants to dock this summer.
In the absence of plausible political opposition at the national level, some have welcomed the signs of resistance against the government, led by Mr. Salvini’s anti-immigrant League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
“There are many little outbreaks that have failed to form in a single flame,” said Claudio Cerasa, the author of a manual on resistance to Italy’s culture of intolerance and the editor of Il Foglio, a newspaper critical of the government.
But the flickers of resistance have only inflamed Mr. Salvini, who clearly thinks he has a winning position ahead of critical European Parliament elections in May. He continues to find evermore inventive ways to ratchet up his crack down on illegal migration.
Mr. Salvini has embraced the investigation aimed at him as an opportunity to play the victim of overreaching magistrates. He has already attacked the civilly disobedient mayors as scofflaws who “help the illegal migrants hate Italians, and they will answer to the law and to history.’’
‘‘I will not stop,” he pledged.
Indeed, last month, Mr. Salvini refused to offer a safe port to the Sea Watch 3, a vessel that had rescued 47 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea. For nearly two weeks, the ship was adrift as Mr. Salvini spoke of forming a “naval blockade” to seal off the country.
The standoff ended on Thursday, only after European neighbors agreed to take in the majority of the migrants, who disembarked in another Sicilian city, Catania.
The repeating loop of ships approaching Italy with rescued migrants, only to be turned away by Mr. Salvini, has given the tough-talking interior minister a seemingly inexhaustible well of talking points and advantageous television footage.
“I guarantee that our position will not change: Zero Tolerance” Mr. Salvini posted on Twitter Thursday, adding later that millions of Italians “voted for me to BLOCK THE LANDINGS.”
Mr. Orlando accused Mr. Salvini of fear-mongering and “using the banner of security to get votes in the next European election.”
His decision, which his office said is based on his reading of Italian law, breaks a bureaucratic impasse with city workers who, unlike him, were loath to defy Mr. Salvini’s decree. It sets off a process that will likely result this month in the mayor personally granting residency to the applicants.
“This is the first concrete act of opposition,” said Mr. Orlando, who is eager for Italy’s highest court to rule on Mr. Salvini’s law. “I need a court!”
In the meantime, migrants around Italy are feeling the pressure.
“I don’t know what to do,” Saha Abdul, 21, a migrant from Ghana said as he shopped in the Ballarò market in the center of Palermo. He said he had tried to renew his documents to gain residency in Italy, but was told the decree made that impossible.
“I’m already on the street. Everything is in my bag — water, food,’’ he lamented. ‘‘I get no help. It will push people to do what people don’t want to do.”
At the University of Palermo, a group of 10 lawyers and law students offered free counsel to migrants thrown in disarray by the new decree. Outside of a classroom, lawyers worked off a call list with the names Sakko, Konate, Camara and Bolul.
Migrants who arrived in Italy as minors — attending Italian schools, learning the language and integrating in their cities — often counted on the humanitarian status to remain in Italy when they came of age. Instead, many risked suddenly becoming illegal as they turned 18.
Alieu Sosseh, 17, said his application for a residency permit had been postponed until later this month.
“I don’t know why. I’m not trying to do something bad in this country. I have been going to school,” he said, worried that people in his situation will eventually be forced to start dealing drugs.
“In life when you can’t get your meals — your breakfast — and that is the only opportunity, you can get involved in that thing,’’ he said. ‘‘You won’t like it, but you have no choice.”
Mr. Salvini’s critics say that is exactly the outcome he desires. By producing more migrant crime, they say, he produces more anxiety and fear, exactly the conditions on which his law-and-order proposals feed.
But Mr. Salvini argues that the mayors and other liberals are simply making excuses for migrants, who they prefer over law-abiding Italian citizens.
Acting on the authority of Mr. Salvini’s Security Decree, the police last week cleared out an integration center in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome. Mr. Salvini said the closure of such centers, where about 6,000 refugee applicants across the country receive shelter, would save the state about six million euros.
Mr. Salvini pledged to carry out a similar evacuation of an even larger center in Sicily later this year.
Such moves continue to divide Italians. The mayor of Castelnuovo di Porto expressed disgust with Mr. Salvini and took in a Somali woman. Other residents rallied around children who attended the local school and a 19-year-old Senegalese striker for the local soccer team.
Mr. Orlando had supported the Sea Watch, the rescue vessel that landed Thursday, and even gave its crew a Palermo flag before they set sail. Residents in the Sicilian town Syracuse, outside of which the Sea Watch lingered, hung white sheets from their balconies reading “Let Them Dock,” and some families offered to take migrants in.
Mr. Orlando is hoping that he, and the mayors who followed his lead, had at least sparked something in the country.
“I played my role,” he said. “I hope I will not remain isolated and everyone will ask, ‘In my field, what can I do to be concretely against this?’”
Orignially published in NYT.