Italians: Come Home

The animated sounds of Italian and American English rose and fell as I walked around the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego’s “Little Italy.” The mood was festive. We were waiting for the Italian General Consul of Southern California to show up. He was late of course.

The Americans, at least, were here to apply for passports. Italian passports. They had spent time digging through vital statistics and immigration records to prove their Italian heritage. That’s what it takes to convince a willing Italian government that you should be made a citizen of that country.

Roberto Ruocco

It was a sample of what’s going on with European countries, of dwindling populations, who are looking to the lost souls of their diaspora to beef up the nation with that good old native blood.

The man at the hub of the scene at the cultural center was a charming Neapolitan and former Italian air force colonel named Roberto Ruocco. He cheerfully passed out numbers to applicants to indicate their turn with the consular official.

Ruocco is a great salesman when it comes to encouraging Americans to apply for Italian citizenship. Upon learning my wife’s great grandparents came from Naples, he quickly emailed me a form that Karen could fill out to get the process started.

From the American standpoint, why not become an Italian citizen? It applies to you and your offspring. It means you (and they) can work there, study there, buy property, vote and travel freely. And not only that. As an Italian citizen you’re free to seek employment throughout the EU.

To the nation of Italy, according to Roberto, it’s a chance to reclaim families who left generations ago, who went on to become educated professionals in the U.S. It’s also a chance to enhance the population of a country with a dangerously low birthrate. Whether that scheme will actually work is another question.

It’s amazing to watch the dilemma of the developed world, in just about every country outside the U.S., as they struggle for their future in a place where couples, on average, are having not much more than one child each. The same dilemma is seen in Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

Their birthrate is a recipe for extinction. But opening the gates to unbridled immigration is not a solution… at least not for Europe or East Asia. Their identity and citizenship is bound to the ethnic blood. If Italy were flooded with immigrants from North Africa, they wouldn’t know what to do with them because, well, they’re just not Italian! Much better, they think, to beckon the right kind of foreigners with familiar-sounding surnames.

I spoke about this with an academic named John Skrentny, whose UC San Diego office had a view of the Pacific Ocean. Skrentny studies immigration policy, and he thought that trying solve Italy’s huge demographic challenge by encouraging ethnic Italians to move “back home” seemed a little desperate.

They may be named Rossi and LaRuccia, but Italian Americans enter a foreign land when they go to Italy. My experience talking to Americans who got Italian passports tells me that they found it a fun adventure, and they liked the idea of being able to travel around Europe hassle-free. But none of them saw Italy as their land of opportunity. Thanks, but they already live in that place.

If Italy is going to survive without becoming an immigrant nation, then it needs to start having more babies. But people in modern societies with industrial, knowedge-based economies and generous welfare systems see no real incentive to have kids. Throw in the fact of near-flawless contraception, then super-low birthrates are virtually guaranteed.

You don’t need kids these days to help out on the farm because we don’t live on farms anymore. Child labor is frowned upon. You have to put kids though college, and that’s expensive. And good pension benefits mean you don’t need them to look after you when you get old. God knows you love your kids when you have them, but that’s not enough to convince people to have enough children to sustain the population.

Meanwhile, Italy is scouring the globe in the hopes that people of Italian heritage may actually want to move back the land of Michelangelo.

There was a time when your family looked out for you. You relied not just on your parents, but on your children. Countries still rely on the coming generation to keep the place going and pay our pensions. So maybe people need to see their whole country as one big family.

Good luck with that.

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