Saturday, February 20, 2010

Italian citizenship and identity

There are basically two guiding principles for determining citizenship: jus sanguinis and jus soli. Respectively, the law of "blood" (ethnic origin) and the law of "soil" (birthplace). The United States bases its law on the latter, Italy on the former.

What this means for those of you who are of Italian origin and wish to obtain Italian (most likely, dual) citizenship is that in theory at least you are eligible, although the rules are complicated. I, for example, do not have Italian citizenship but would qualify based on the following facts: my mother was born in Italy in 1925 to Italian parents, she still had citizenship when I was born in the US in 1954, she lost it in 1960 when she got American citizenship (dual was not allowed at the time), re-obtained Italian citizenship in the 1980's when the law changed. It's difficult, but a starting point can be found at the site of the Italian Embassy in D.C., here. Let me tell you- it won't be easy and might well take years. Look at it this way. If you can't put up with the process to obtain citizenship, it's probably a good indication that you shouldn't live in Italy. Because you'll be getting a lot of this if you live there as an Italian and not a tourist.

No country, of course, has a fixed and straightforward approach to the blood/soil dichotomy. Italian-Americans who don't speak Italian or speak it poorly, have little or no exposure to Italy except perhaps as tourists, and eat things like chicken parm still proudly call themselves "Italian." The Italians in Italy might beg to differ. On the other hand, with globalization and the large number of immigrant children born in Italy and speaking perfect Italian, the native-born Italians are having a hard time coming to terms with the identity of these fellow residents. Italians or not? Why is an Italian-American with an Italian surname (but perhaps with an Irish-American mother), who speaks no Italian and has never been there, considered Italian, while the adolescent child of African immigrants, who was born and schooled in Italy, is considered African?

These are important and potentially explosive issues (just look at the uproar concerning President Obama's citizenship and identity.) The very use of loaded terms such as "blood" and "soil" shows the emotional and irrational import of the concepts. The matter is similar to the old and unresolved question of nature or nurture. But what appears clear to me is that an either/or approach is increasingly outdated. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president during a period of very high immigration, said: "Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not an American at all." I strenuously disagree. A major part of being an American is that nobody can tell you who you are or can be. Not even a president. Especially not a president.