According to Istat, Italy's national statistics institute, there were 903,000 eastern Europeans from non-EU countries legally resident in Italy on January 1, 2005, making them the biggest bloc of foreigners by geographical origin.
They included 317,000 Albanians, 249,000 Romanians, 93,000 Ukrainians and 38,000 Moldovans – figures that come as no surprise to anyone who knows the numerous small towns south of Rome where such immigrants work as cleaners, gardeners and mechanics.
By contrast, Africans legally resident in Italy numbered 642,000, among whom Moroccans were much the largest community, accounting for 295,000 of the total.
The next largest group consisted of Asians – some 405,000 in number, including 112,000 Chinese, 83,000 Filipinos and 54,000 Indians.
Lastly, there were 230,000 people from the Americas, with 53,000 Ecuadoreans, an equal number of Peruvians and other Central and South Americans making up the vast majority.
In all, 2.4m foreigners were registered as living in Italy, although the figure today may be closer to 2.8m, or 4.8 per cent of the population, according to Caritas Italiana, a Roman Catholic organisation that specialises in immigration studies.
It goes without saying that this substantial immigration plays a critical role in at least delaying the population shrinkage ensured by Italy's continuing lowest-low fertility. Ideally, the Italian government would create a legal infrastructure that would make it easier for immigrants to integrate themselves into Italy, for their own sake and for the benefit of Italy as a whole. Unfortunately, the controversy aroused the Prodi government's recent proposal to extend voting rights and expedited citizenship to immigrants suggests otherwise.