ROME Italy's Senate voted on Tuesday to scrap a law that makes entering the country without the proper paperwork a criminal offence and means migrants can be tried and fined up to 5,000 euros ($6,800) before being deported.
The lower house of parliament must also now approve the change for it to take effect.
Under planned new rules, an illegal migrant would still be barred from finding work but would have better protection from maltreatment by black-market employers. The migrant would be deemed guilty of an administrative infraction, not a crime, but could still ultimately face expulsion.
Italy has borne the brunt of the migrant flow to the European Union from Africa in the past two decades, but the problem has become particularly pressing since two shipwrecks last October off Sicily's coast killed more than 500 migrants.
Migrant boat arrivals in Italy from North Africa surged last year to more than 40,000, almost four times as many as in 2012.
Under the current law, illegal migrants can be kept in immigration centers for up to 18 months before being deported.
The law, introduced by a conservative government in 2009, has been widely criticized for making migrants more vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace and to human rights abuses.
"Scrapping the law has symbolic meaning because it is used to stigmatize migrants," said Elisa De Pieri, a researcher at Amnesty International in London.
"If migrants are considered criminals, they can't go to a judge to ask to be treated fairly in the workplace."
Italy's demand for migrant labor far exceeds the annual quotas set by the government for legal immigration, she added.
Economists argue that Italy needs more immigrants in the workforce to help pay the pensions of an ageing population and to ensure long-term economic growth.
The move to decriminalize clandestine immigration was passed as part of a broader bill aimed at easing chronic prison overcrowding and it received broad support both from members of the ruling coalition and the opposition 5-Star Movement.
However, the anti-immigration Northern League condemned the Senate decision as a "shame!" on its official Twitter account. Its leader Matteo Salvini tweeted: "Let's prepare to take this battle to the streets." ($1 = 0.7373 euros)
(Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Steve Scherer, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Gareth Jones)