Could you reclaim your heritage with Italian citizenship?
It's no exaggeration to say that Italians helped build America. Today, about 18 million Americans claim Italian descent, representing about five percent of the US population. If you're one of them, you may have a vague idea of your family's origins but how much do you really know - and are you eligible for Italian citizenship?
Italian migration to North America has been going on for a very long time, for a variety of reasons. Here, we look at what brought these Italians to the 'New World' and reveal the grounds by which their descendants may claim dual citizenship and a strong Italian passport. .
Right from the start
Many think that Italian migration to the US began in the 19th century. That was the start of mass migration and it might be at that stage that your ancestors arrived. However, you might be surprised then to learn it's been happening for almost 400 years.
Pietro Cesare Alberti, a sailor from Venice, is widely believed to be the first to migrate to North America from the Italian Peninsula. He settled in what is now New York in 1635 and farmed land near what is now the New York Stock Exchange, in the Financial District.
Several Italian migrants would contribute to the struggle for independence, supplying funds or arms to the Colonial forces. One of these migrants, Fillipo Mazzei, made an indelible contribution to American history when he wrote in a political pamphlet, "All men are by nature equally free and independent" - a phrase his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, borrowed for the Declaration of Independence.
Seeking a better life
While some Italians took up the offer to fight for the Union against slavery in the Civil War, it wasn't until the last 20 years of the 19th century that Italians would arrive in the millions, constituting the largest wave of migration.
The arrival point for many of these migrants was the processing station at Ellis Island in New York. The records and photographs of these arrivals have been placed online and provide an invaluable resource for Italian-Americans researching their heritage.
This massive surge in Italian migration was prompted by several factors. Foremost was a severe disruption in regional economies, and a rise in political violence caused by the unification of Italy. With a new life presented to them across the Atlantic, many - particularly in the south of the country in places like Sicily, Calabria and Puglia - took the opportunity for a more stable existence, enabled by Padrone who would arrange travel (albeit often unscrupulously).
Upon their arrival in America, many of these migrants would make their home in New York, but even more would settle in cities along the length of the East Coast. As subsequent migrants would arrive in the United States, they would travel to where they already had relatives in Philadelphia, Boston. Others traveled inland to the industrial powerhouse of Chicago. Most of these cities still have a 'Little Italy', a cluster of restaurants, stores and churches catering to a community that has thrived for generations.
Not only would these new Americans find many successful, still-existent businesses in American cities on both coasts - Bank of America and Planter's Peanuts among them - but they would bring their skill at growing oranges and lemons to several rural areas of the United States, including California.
It may seem a long time ago, but under Italian law, many of the descendants of those arrivals are eligible for Italian citizenship under the law. As long as the right documentation is supplied, citizenship by descent is a very real possibility.
From the ashes
Two devastating world wars in the 20th century would lead to a second great wave of migration, as Italians sought to leave the ruins of their homes and seek the same life the generations before had taken up.
Unlike the first wave of Italian migrants, many postwar migrants had professional backgrounds, and their influence on American society was immediate and long-lasting. Far beyond what some consider the Italian contribution to American life - great food, wine and coffee - Italian ingenuity and expertise reached every aspect of society, from politics to science and literature. It also revolutionised the American entertainment industry, with several cinematic titans including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola emerging.
With improved record-keeping and centralisation of records over the latter half of the twentieth century, it's often even easier for the descendants of these postwar migrants receive Italian citizenship by descent.
Find your roots
For decades, it was hard to know where and why your Italian ancestors left their homes. However, with the advent of the internet and online genealogy services, it's much easier to find that tiny Sicilian village or sleepy Tuscan town that a great-grandparent left behind, looking for a better life.
Italy is now a beautiful, modern nation, with a cultural history the envy of many others. Regional identities are still strong and tradition and local cuisine dominate daily life. A few weeks soaking it in is often enough to inspire people to reclaim their heritage and take up Italian citizenship.
Italian citizenship has many benefits. Not only does it give you the right to live and work across Europe, but it also grants you access to a world-class health system. It can also be passed on to your children, a tangible link to their family's past.
So, what if you could?
The good news is that Italy is exceptionally generous when granting citizenship by descent - an Italian great-grandparent is often enough, providing they were alive on March 17, 1861 - the day Italy became a unified nation - and have documentation that states so.
Should you meet the requirements and provide the relevant documents, you can receive Italian citizenship and have the right to settle, vote and participate in Italian life. As mentioned earlier, Italian citizenship also grants you the ability to reside in Europe permanently, without the hassle of renewing visas and other bureaucracy.
This is an increasingly popular choice - so much so that consulates often have waiting lists. However, there is another option, involving applying directly to Italian courts. This is where organizations such as Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA) can bypass the queue and help obtain your citizenship more rapidly.
While obtaining the right documents can be a difficult task, involving many visits to small towns, services like ICA can also do the hard work when it comes to applying for Italian citizenship by descent, making the process easier and stress-free.
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