Saturday, December 03, 2011

“New Italians”. The Good News and the Bad.

A month ago, I wrote about a project the American University of Rome was working on with the Rome City Council; the first phase came to end this week with a closing ceremony. More importantly, the whole issue of immigrants in Italy and their children has become an important part of the political agenda.

Last week an immigrant boat was wrecked on the coast of Apulia; three died. Most of the immigrants came from the Middle East and further east. They were Kurds, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Bengladeshis all seeking streets paved with gold in the European Union. Then a Morroccan woman, resident in northern Italy, was killed by her violent husband when she wanted to leave him and convert. These are two episodes which underline the ongoing difficulties both of immigration and of integration for those who have made the jump.

The good news, though, is that something is moving for the great majority of immigrants and their children. Beyond the predictable difficulties that immigrants face, they have a peculiarly Italian condition. Children born and brought up in Italy of non-Italian parents, are not Italian citizens. They can only become Italian when they reach 18 and then jump through a difficult set of bureaucratic hoops. President Napolitano made his opinion abundantly clear last week when he said that denying citizenship to children born in Italy was “a real folly, an absurdity”.

His remarks were picked up by Andrea Riccardi, the minister for “International Cooperation and Integration”, a new minister and a new ministry which is already a positive sign. He said the President was right and that the present citizenship law based on blood ties (ius sanguinis) should be modified in favour of rights based on territory (ius solis). At the moment an Argentinian or Australian with Italian grandparents can claim citizenship whereas the child of foreigners born here, cannot.

There is solace too from that very opinionated voice, The Economist. It has just run a cover story

, editorial and a briefing article extolling the financial and economic advantages of migration for both host and original communities. They know it and we know it, but it is a point that has to be made again and again to dispel the “emergency” and “invasion” view of immigration.

The invasion image is, of course, part of the bad news. There are neo-Fascist groups in the area around my University on the Janiculum and this poster

was put in front of a nearby lycée (it has since been torn down). The message is clear and explicit and many believe it which is why The Economist articles are so important. When Napolitano said that children born in Italy should be Italian, former ministers Calderoli and Maroni of the Northern League said they were ready to fight at the barricades and La Russa (outgoing Minister of Defence, now in the PdL but once of the neo-Fascist MSI and hardly changed since then) threatened to bring the government down if the new Monti government dared move on the issue. They have tried to muddy the waters by implying that a new law would give citizenship to the child of any irregular immigrant – it wouldn’t.

This is where our ceremony fitted in. It was some sort of antidote to the poison not just spread by neo-Fascists in our part of town but by much more moderate folk in the whole country. We had confirmation of President Napolitano’s commitment to the issue when his Diplomatic Counsellor, Amb. Stefano Stefani replied to our invitation saying: “The Head of State wishes to inform you of his sincere appreciation… of the attention opportunely given to the issue of the new Italians which is so important for the future of Italy and Europe”. Much appreciated by us in turn, to have encouragement from the President.

We gave out the certificates to those who had taken part in last month’s seminars and received some feedback from the participants. One, an AUR student, a Tuareg, Iddar Adingad, pointed out how the seminars had broken down barriers between the immigrant groups and given them a clear idea of who the “other” was. There was a Singalese who explained how the seminars had mitigated his anti-Americanism and shown him that American ways allow migrants to flourish in the States (it it were always that easy… but direct human contact often works). He also told us of an episode where he felt empowered enough to intervene on behalf of some immigrants on a bus (again, if it were always that easy…); but both are a start


Then the serious ethnic fraternising began in the University garden with tables laid out with food from the four continents. It was a feel-good moment, and meant to be so and provides a foundation on which to build. There will be other initiatives like this one, ones which include some of the biggest groups of immigrants (there were few north Africans and no Chinese) and at least a few “old” or “ethnic” Italians.

Parallel to lobbying for a change in the citizenship law, there are other “softer” activities which are still very relevant. The Rome Public Libraries have offered prizes for video, photo and literary accounts of the lives of “new” Italians in their Concorso Biblioteche di Roma “Figli di tante patrie”.

And on Monday, the RAI’s Radio 3 will have a whole day of programmes presented by “new Italians” or foreigners resident in Italy to underline their presence and contribution.

We’re moving in the right direction.

A note on words used: even more than most political subjects, the words used to describe and analyse betray a position held. The most obvious conflict of words is over “irregular” and “illegal” immigrants. The ILO tries to persuade journalists and politicians to call them “irregular” but has scant success even with non-xenophobes. Today in Italy, since 2009, it is actually a crime to be an irregular immigrant, so “illegal” is sadly correct though if the courts really had to try and convict them all, there would be chaos.

But the term which I am interested in is what to call the people this blog describes. Often they call themselves “second generation immigrants” while others argue that they have not emigrated from anywhere – they are natives of Italy even if many are not Italian citizens. Hence my use of “new Italians”, itself a loaded word because it presumes there is an “Italo-Italian”; but for the moment it’s the best I can do.

This blog is part of the ongoing project at The American University of Rome in which we are working with immigrant communities on integration and leadership issues for both “old” and “new” Italians. This and future blogs will be headed by the title “New Italians” and Lele Luzzatti’s multicultural she-wolf.

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