Can Culture, Not Blood, Make You Italian?

A new generation of students raised and schooled in Italy are pushing to reform outdated citizenship laws that reward those with Italian bloodlines rather than people who have lived in the country all their lives.

Leoluca Orlandoconfers honorary citizenship on foreign students
Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, Italy, confers honorary citizenship on 71 foreign students on May 7. Francesco Militello Mirto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

BOLOGNA, Italy—From a theater stage in Bologna on Nov. 9, Nadeesha Uyangoda addressed a crowd of a few hundred people who wanted to learn more about the debate on citizenship law reform currently dominating Italian news.

“Ethnic minorities in Italy are often used as instruments of political propaganda, both by the right wing, to encourage white nationalism, and the left wing, just to accuse the opposition,” she said. “Our request is to legally acknowledge our existence.”

This past October, the Italian Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee brought back to the table the discussion about a reform of the citizenship law currently in force, which dates back to 1992 and mainly awards Italian citizenship through blood ties. The so-called jus culturae (Latin for “cultural right”) would offer a third alternative to the more common jus soli and jus sanguinis, which recognize birthright citizenship and citizenship by bloodlines, respectively. The reform instead proposes citizenship by cultural assimilation, mainly through the Italian education system, and aims to support demographic growth in a country with low birth rates.

The jus culturae (Latin for “cultural right”) reform proposes recognizing citizenship by cultural assimilation, mainly through the Italian education system, rather than through birthright or bloodlines.

The reform debate began in 2016 under former center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s leadership, but it was then abandoned after the populist government that came to power in early 2018 targeted migrants through xenophobic laws that stripped newly arrived migrants of humanitarian protection rights.

According to a report, during the 2017-2018 academic year, 842,000 “foreign” students enrolled at Italian public schools didn’t have Italian citizenship. (The report labels as foreign those students who hold residence permits but not Italian nationality.) If approved, the law will deliver automatic citizenship to all those children who were born in or entered Italy before turning 12 and finished at least five years of Italian schooling.

The current coalition in power is divided over its approval, with the left-wing Democratic Party partly backing it, while the populist Five Star Movement is openly trying to push back its discussion in the Senate, saying it should not be a priority for this government.

Uyangoda was speaking at the Festival of New Italian Generations, organized by Next Generation Italy, a grassroots group of first- and second-generation Italians. Their work aims to give a voice to young Italians with immigrant backgrounds who do not feel sufficiently represented in Italian politics and are now asserting the importance of their citizenship rights and demanding fair representation in politics. It’s a rare opportunity for Italians to hear and learn directly from those affected by Italy’s immigration policies—rather than from politicians with no skin in the game.

Uyangoda, a 26-year-old journalist and migration rights activist, moved to Italy with her family 20 years ago, fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war. Despite having known no other home than Italy ever since, she cannot fully call herself Italian, because she doesn’t have the legal documents attesting it. She could have applied for citizenship after turning 18, but she didn’t do so during the one-year period during which people in situations like hers are permitted to apply for citizenship. After they turn 19 and want to apply, they have to provide a legal declaration giving a valid reason for not having applied during that one-year period.

“It became a matter of principle. I wanted it to be a naturally recognized right, not something I had to ask for,” Uyangoda said. She is part of a growing number of Italian-raised descendants of immigrants demanding more visibility. Currently, one of the requirements for a citizenship application is providing evidence of sufficient income for the whole family.

As many migrants lost their jobs or could only find illegal job options during the economic crisis, they often have trouble providing evidence of continuous legal residence in the country for 10 years. Because of the high costs of the application process—250 euros ($275) just to submit the application form, plus other bureaucratic expenses—entire families simply give up.

According to Pino Gulia, an Italian immigration law expert, the main challenge is the inability of politicians to make a clear distinction between migrants temporarily landing in Italy as a result of the refugee crisis and generations of immigrants who have been living in the country for decades, since the end of World War II. For him, reform is way overdue if Italy is to keep pace with the rest of the European Union’s countries in terms of immigration laws. While France and Germany already offer a naturalization option to foreign children with at least five and six years of legal residence, respectively, Italy still requires a minimum of 10 years of continuous residence.

“There’s a lack of a strong political leadership taking concrete action against xenophobia, beyond just rhetoric,” Gulia said. The reform’s advancement suffers from the uneasy, anti-migrant political atmosphere. The 2018 populist coalition, consisting of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, built its entire campaign, both for national and EU elections, around the issue of migration.

Rather than portraying it as a natural human phenomenon and acknowledging the clear evidence of assimilation of those raised in Italy, populist parties continue to advocate ethnic nationalism and are now avoiding the citizenship question, in accordance with their promises made to voters. On the other hand, Italy’s Democratic Party had tried to promote immigrants’ rights in order to attract the pro-migrant side of the population, but they have done so without concrete results. Second-generation Italians remain the main losers on this political battlefield.

Ayoub Saidi, 25, was born in Morocco but grew up in northern Italy. One of the festival’s organizers, Saidi said he’s always found it odd that the current law recognizes citizenship rights for descendants of the Italian diaspora worldwide who no longer speak the language or never visited the country, but not to youngsters who, like him, have grown up in Italy, attended Italian schools, and fully embraced Italian culture and lifestyle.

This reform instead would represent an innovative step in identity politics and a departure from the country’s historical jus sanguinis model, Saidi said. But for far-right leaders such as Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, whose political rhetoric is based on a form of ethnic nationalism that prioritizes bloodlines, the proposed law represents a threat to their agenda.

Gulia thinks descendants of immigrants are a huge, yet overlooked, resource and expression of a new Italy in the making. He’s hopeful about the future though, as he has witnessed a more structured rebellion against the status quo. In the past five years, more millennials are trying to prove their capacity to influence political sentiments through panels and meetings, rather than continuing to live as ghosts in the place they consider their home country.

For far-right leaders such as Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, whose political rhetoric is based on a form of ethnic nationalism that prioritizes bloodlines, the law represents a threat to their agenda.

But according to Uyangoda, this might not be enough to attract political attention. She said second-generation Italians need better representation at the institutional and political level, which is currently one of the biggest gaps in Italian politics. After all, young people with immigrant backgrounds are everywhere in Italy, except in crucial sectors of Italian society such as media and politics.

Currently, very few politicians with immigrant backgrounds hold public office. Simohamed Kaabour, Uyangoda’s fellow panel speaker at the festival, thinks they risk being judged for their ethnic background and appearance rather than their results. Such episodes have already taken place.

Cécile Kyenge was Italy’s minister of integration and youth policies from 2013 to 2014. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kyenge during her mandate received a significant number of racist insults based on her skin color, and she was even compared to a monkey by a former member of Parliament from Salvini’s League party.

Five years later, the situation has not improved. In May, Antonella Bundu, a candidate for mayor in Florence, attracted attention for her darker skin and curly hair rather than for her work. Media coverage about her focused more on clickbait headlines about her mixed-race background (her father comes from Sierra Leone) and less on her policy proposals. Although Bundu is Italian, she has been labeled a foreigner due to her looks, and she lost the election to the incumbent mayor.

“We’ve been an integral part of this country for decades and helped turn it into the society it is today,” Kaabour said. A native of Morocco, the 37-year-old explained that despite growing up in Italy since age 9, he’s often felt “un-Italian” because people view him as foreign. “Older generations don’t fully grasp the idea of modern identity. For them, Italians cannot yet be associated with darker skin, a hijab, or oriental features. But millennials seem more open-minded on this matter,” he added.

Kaabour said the first time he truly felt Italian was in 2004, during a university exchange in France through the Erasmus program. There, he realized that the French seemed to accept his dual identity as both Arab and Italian far more than anyone at home—a damning indictment of Italian society, given France’s long-standing history of racism toward people of North African descent.

In May, Antonella Bundu, a candidate for mayor in Florence, attracted attention because of her mixed-race background (her father comes from Sierra Leone) rather than her policy proposals.

In 2015, Kaabour co-founded the National Coordination of New Italian Generations, a group offering an alternative point of view on the benefits of a multicultural society for Italy, and ran for mayor in his hometown of Genoa. A teacher by day, he spends his spare time advocating for the importance of jus culturae. “This reform represents an opportunity for all those who feel part of the Italian community to participate equally in its social and political life,” Kaabour said. “More rights for us don’t mean less rights for the rest of the Italians.

Although recent statistics show that seven out of 10 Italians are in favor of the reform, Gulia believes more years of education aimed at normalizing a multicultural Italy are needed before an actual change will come. Starting in elementary schools, he said, is the way forward because “the difference at the moment is only perceived by adults,” as older generations were raised on myths and stereotypes about immigrants, compared to today’s youth.

There are already awareness campaigns at the university level, through student-led initiatives. Recently, a group of graduates from the University of Bologna launched the Boundless Identities Project, which aims to send DNA tests to Italian politicians in 2020 and challenge them to unravel their not-so-Italian origins.

“It’s a symbolic gesture to involve Italian civil society … and make people realize that the acceptance of migration fluxes is crucial for the creation of modern societies,” explained Rosa Maria Curró, the project’s co-founder.

“Our tests are just a means to awaken Italians on the unsustainable idea that being Italian is something exclusively connected to blood.”

Stefania D’Ignoti is an independent reporter based between Italy and the Middle East. She covers conflict and migration, and her work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian, Time, the Economist and Al Jazeera English. Twitter: @stef_dgn

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