Rome Opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi urged Italy to close its borders to Romanian workers and a conservative ally called Sunday for the expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants amid public outrage over a wave of violent crimes blamed on foreigners.
Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the debate over the balance between citizen safety and treatment of foreigners, reminding authorities that immigrants have both obligations and rights.
The pope weighed in as lawmakers prepared to debate the government's response to recent crime, including fast-track expulsions of Romanians and other EU citizens deemed dangerous and bulldozing shantytowns housing immigrants.
"In Rome alone, 20,000 expulsions should be carried out right away," right-wing leader Gianfranco Fini, a key Berlusconi ally, said on a TV talk show Sunday.
Romanians have been detained as suspects in several recent high-profile crimes, including the rape of a woman on church steps in northern Italy, a mugging that left a Rome cyclist in a coma for weeks before he died, and the robbery of a Milan coffee bar in which the elderly owner was beaten and her daughter raped.
Other recent crimes in which foreigners are suspected include the mugging of Oscar-winning director Giuseppe Tornatore, which sent him to the hospital; the holdup of a prominent TV anchorman and the mugging of a Rome municipal commissioner.
Berlusconi told La Stampa newspaper that Italy should enact a moratorium against Romanian workers.
"If I were in the government, I would have done it," the billionaire media mogul and former premier said.
After Romania joined the EU earlier this year, Romanians poured into Italy in search of work as maids, nannies, waiters, janitors and bricklayers, and they now account for nearly 1 percent of the population in Italy.
Last week, the Cabinet gave authorities the power to expel EU citizens with criminal records, or those deemed dangerous to public safety. The decree needs approval in parliament, where Premier Romano Prodi's center-left forces have a narrow majority, to remain in effect long-term.
The savage beating last week of the wife of an Italian naval commander triggered the emergency decree after a Romanian was arrested in connection with the assault.
Berlusconi said he was mulling whether his conservative lawmakers should approve the decree, while Fini said his forces would vote for it only if expulsions are expanded to include EU citizens without a means to support themselves.
Another right-wing leader, Roberto Calderoli, advocated vigilante patrols.
In Bucharest, Romanian's prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, summoned top Cabinet ministers Sunday to discuss the issue. Tariceanu's office said he would travel to Rome later this week.
"We should fight against the wave of xenophobia that is manifesting itself in Italy and we must fight against the bad image that Romanians who are working in Italy have," he said.