Italy: Ease nationality obstacles for immigrants

Immigration is not a danger to the Italian society, but rather an opportunity, writes author.

About 900,000 non-EU minors live in Italy, but the country possibly has the lowest naturalisation rate in the EU [AP]

Italy may not have a government yet, but its newly elected Parliament is organising its calendar. Among the bills now before the Legislative Assembly for approval is a reform to the citizenship law. This is an essential issue regarding the life and the rights of the “new Italians”, and in particular of the second generation of immigrants in the country.

Italy has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Today, the Italian Institute for Statistic estimates a population of roughly 4.5 million foreign residents in Italy, which means 7.5 percent of the country’s 60 million inhabitants. Little more than 3.5 million of them are non-European Union nationals. Most of them are workers holding a regular permit; many have been living here for a decade or two, some have started businesses, many have founded families and many have children. According to official statistics, last year almost 80,000 babies were born in Italy to non-Italian parents.

In other words, immigrants are a structural part of the Italian society (and of the Italian economy, by the way), and there is no better proof of it than the presence of a large, young population of foreign descent. Almost 900,000 non-EU minors live in Italy today, either born here or arrived with their parents at a very early age.

Yet Italy has possibly the lowest rate of naturalisation among the EU countries. This is particularly painful for the “second generation” of boys and girls. Whether their parents are originals from Eastern Europe, China, the Philippines, South Asia, the Maghreb, West Africa or Latin America, they speak Italian often with the accent of the place they are growing up. They attend Italian schools and learn the Italian history, geography and literature. They watch the Italian TV, listen to the same music as their Italian mates, love the same food, often blending their parents’ culture and language with that of their acquired land.

But they remain “immigrants” before the law: extracomunitari, as the bureaucratic definition of the non-EU nationals goes, or simply “foreigners”. In fact, the law currently regulating the Italian citizenship, approved in 1992, is based on the ius sanguini, or “right of blood”. It gives Italian citizenship to all children born to Italian parents (or at least one of them Italian) in Italy or abroad.

On the contrary, the children of immigrants born in Italy have to wait until their 18th birthday before they can apply for citizenship – but only if they were registered immediately after birth, which is not always the case if the parents do not hold a regular residence permit. If they fail to catch this opportunity, within few months they will be just as any foreign immigrant, needing a residence permit – issued on condition they can prove an income. 

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“This makes them live in uncertainty, with the constant fear of becoming ‘illegal aliens’ in a country they grew up,” says Fred Kuwornu, himself a “new” Italian and the author of 18 Ius Soli, a documentary advocating the right to citizenship for the second generation of immigrants in Italy. “I do not want to see more young Italians forced to live with short-term visas,” Kuwornu said during a recent screening of the documentary at the American University of Rome.

“What we experience is institutionalised racism: that is, discrimination based on the laws,” Cecile Kyenge, a first-time member of the Italian Chamber of Representatives and one of the MPs lobbying to reform the Italian citizenship laws, told me recently.

A first generation immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kyenge arrived in Italy as a young girl, went to the University and specialised as an ophthalmologist and surgeon. But she could not practice in the National Health Service before acquiring the Italian citizenship, as no foreign national is admitted to hold permanent positions in the public sector. “This is contrary to Article 3 of the Italian Constitution which states that no person may be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, faith, opinion,” she said.

Something is changing though. In 2010, an alliance of 22 civil society organisations started a campaign to reform the citizenship laws with the slogan “l’Italia sono anch’io” – “Italy is also me”.  Among them are human-rights groups, trade-unions, network of immigrants, charities and social workers, catholic and other faith groups.

They collected hundreds of thousands of signatures under two bill proposals advocating the right to vote at administrative level for resident immigrants, and a new citizenship law. They called for a citizenship based more on the “soil” than on “blood” – we could call it a “socialisation-based acquisition” where residence, schooling, integration in the society and shared constitutional values form the basis of the citizenship.

“Basically we want to grant citizenship to those who are born here if their parents have been residents for five years, and to children born abroad after they complete one cycle of education in the country. We also want to shorten the time required for adults to apply for citizenship, from 10 to 5 years as in many European countries,” said Kyenge.

The campaign gained strength in 2011 when the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano publicly acknowledged the “new Italians” in a speech, adding that the Italian citizenship laws are outdated. As in many European countries, immigration has polarised the public opinion in Italy for many years, feeding anti-immigrants movements and making the fortunes of some political parties. Yet the new bill is now drawing support both from the Left and some of the Right benches in the Parliament, and the public endorsement of the Speakers of both Chambers.

As Kyenge told me, “Changing the citizenship law will be an important step to better the lives of many. It will convey the message that immigration is not a danger to the Italian society, but rather an opportunity.”

This will be an essential topic to be dealt with by whatever government is formed.

Marina Forti is a senior journalist based in Rome and a former Foreign Editor with the daily newspaper il manifesto. Her environmental column “Earth to Earth” (terraterra) received many awards. Her book La signora di Narmada (Feltrinelli, 2004) was awarded the Elsa Morante Prize for Communication. Her latest book is Il cuore di tenebra dell’India (Bruno Mondadori, 2012) on the social conflicts in rural India.