Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians emigrated to the United States, with more than half of them arriving between 1900 and 1910 alone. The vast majority of the Italian diaspora came from the southern regions of Italy where crippling poverty and a feudal system all but guaranteed a life of misery for many. For those living in Southern Italy, life offered landless peasants little more than exploitation, violence, and hardship. Despite a mild climate, the soil was poor and disease and malnutrition were common. The Italians emigrating to the United States, Canada, and various South American countries came to be known as the Italian diaspora.
Today, Americans of Italian descent comprise the United States’ fifth largest ethnic group. Generations removed from our immigrant ancestors who wished more than anything to become fully and uncompromisingly American, we are just beginning to feel comfortable enough to explore our heritage in concrete ways. One of the ways in which we are honoring our heritage is by obtaining an Italian passport. Luckily, the Italian government has citizenship laws which look favorably upon Americans of Italian descent and—incredibly—many of us are even vested with Italian citizenship upon birth without even knowing it. Whether you are seeking an Italian passport for sentimental reasons, to honor your family or to take advantage of the practicality of holding E.U. citizenship, obtaining an Italian passport is simply a matter of exercising a right that has existed for you to use since your birth.
The Basics of Italian Citizenship
Italian citizenship is not passed down as it is in the United States. In our country, if you are born here you are automatically given U.S. citizenship—even if your parents are from another country and even if you move away immediately after birth and never live here again. This is not the case in Italy; in Italy, a child is only an Italian citizen upon birth if he or she is born to an Italian parent no matter where that child is born. Thus, Italian citizenship is most often passed from (Italian) parent to child, while U.S. citizenship is automatically given at birth regardless of who a child’s parents are. The two systems are known as jure sanguinis—Latin for “right of the blood” and jure soli—Latin for “right of the soil,” respectively. You can think of the two citizenship systems by keywords: the Italian system is parent-dependent while the U.S. system is mostly location-dependent (people born to American citizens anywhere in the world may also obtain U.S. citizenship, but by and large the U.S. is a jure soli country).
These two different methods of handing down citizenship are able to coexist without overlapping each other, allowing for a person to possess dual citizenship. This means that if a person is born in the United States to a parent who either already has or is able to pass on Italian citizenship, then that person is both a U.S. citizen and an Italian citizen at birth. Why? The U.S. sees that person as a citizen because he or she was born here, while Italy sees that person as a citizen as well because he or she was born to a parent holding or able to pass down Italian citizenship. The only difference is that U.S. citizenship is automatic, while the Italian citizenship is latent and must be formalized by either the parent (by registering the child’s birth with the Italian authorities) or by the child him/herself once he or she reaches adulthood.