Two-thirds of Italians consider legal immigration "good" for their country and many would welcome more migrants, an AP-GfK poll has found _ surprising results given persistent sentiment in Italy linking foreigners to crime and other social ills.
Many Italians _ most prominently allies of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi _ have blamed the relatively new phenomenon of immigration for problems ranging from unemployment to drug trafficking, and from burglaries to violent crime.
But in the poll conducted last week, 67 percent of 1,025 Italian adults surveyed across the country said legal immigration is a good thing. And 59 percent said they want to see even more immigrants admitted legally to Italy.
The findings highlight Italians' split view of immigration: While many have a knee-jerk hostile reaction to immigrants because of security fears, many also realize they are needed to do the jobs Italians won't do, to pay into Italy's overburdened pension system and to care for the country's aging population.
"There is a schizophrenic attitude, which acknowledges the necessity of immigrant labor but doesn't accompany this with a true openness to the human and social implications of migration," said Ferruccio Pastore, director of the International and European Research Forum on Immigration think tank.
On Tuesday, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano urged Parliament to grant automatic citizenship to Italian-born children of foreigners, days after stressing that the weight of Italy's debt would be even more difficult to sustain were it not for the contribution of immigrants to Italy's economy.
A chorus of protest rose up from right-wing politicians, with some leaders of the anti-immigrant Northern League vowing to "throw up barricades" around Parliament if the citizenship measure comes up for a vote.
Among those polled, people most in favor of increasing the number of new immigrant workers and people who consider legal immigration a very good thing came mainly from Italy's industrious north. Those in southern Italy, which suffers from high unemployment and has borne the burden of receiving thousands of illegal boat people, were less enthusiastic.
Demographer Antonio Golini suggested that opinions on immigration tend to be colored by personal experience: Someone whose elderly parents are lovingly cared for by an Eastern European woman sees immigration as a boon; someone whose Egyptian pizza maker quit his job on a busy Saturday night is less enthusiastic.
Still, the idea that immigrant workers are an integral part of Italian life is taking root, said Golini, professor emeritus at Rome's Sapienza University and a frequent collaborator with Italy's national statistics bureau.
"When they see that caretakers for the elderly are mainly immigrants, that factory workers, construction workers, are immigrants, they begin to feel the benefit of immigrants, so they are favorable to them," he said.
For centuries, Italy was a largely homogenized, predominantly Roman Catholic society. Two decades ago, foreign workers began arriving, introducing new ethnic groups and faiths to the nation. Each year, Italy's interior ministry sets the number of new residence permits to be issued, nationality by nationality. Immigrants now account for 6 percent of the population.
Italians depend on the immigrants for low-paying or backbreaking jobs they themselves shun, like bricklaying, crop-picking and flipping pizza dough in front of hot ovens.
But opposition primarily from Berlusconi's allies in the Northern League has led to more restrictive laws, including one that went into effect this year requiring immigrants to take a proficiency test in the Italian language before receiving permanent residency permits.
While the AP-GfK poll suggests Italians are accepting of such legal migrants, it also makes clear they have little tolerance for illegal ones. Illegal immigration was described by 54 percent of those surveyed as an "extremely serious" or "very serious" problem, with 25 percent describing it as "somewhat serious."
Far more respondents said they are deeply worried about unemployment, corruption, the national debt and organized crime.
Husband-and-wife shopkeepers Giovanni Esposito and Gilda Di Carli reflected the ambivalence of Italians toward immigrants.
Esposito, 77, works in a butcher stall in the bustling Piazza Vittorio covered market, in a blue-collar neighborhood that is home to many migrants. He followed the profession of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but said Italian youths are too soft for the work, which requires rising at 4 a.m. and not hanging up one's apron until afternoon.
He said that's why Italy need immigrants.
"We need them because our own young people don't want to do this work," Esposito said.
But he was adamant about illegal migrants: "They should be sent back. If there is no work for us, there is no work for them."
Di Carli, 72, arranged produce in her store a few blocks away.
"There are good ones and bad ones, like Italians," she said. Asked whether the numbers of immigrants should be increased, she was emphatic. "Increased? No. Then there will be more of them than there are of us."
The AP-GfK poll of 1,025 Italian adults across the country was conducted Nov. 16-20 using landlines and cell phones by GfK Eurisko Italy under direction of the global GfK Group. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
AP Poll is at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
Maria Grazia Murru and Paolo Santalucia contributed to this story.