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“Italy feels like home”: reflecting on the integration journey of a young immigrant

By Beatrice Catena and Niya Namfua 

Since the late 1970s, and increasingly from 1989, Italy has been at the receiving end of large-scale immigration from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the ex-’Eastern Bloc’. The incoming flow of non- EU immigrants has been at the centre of Italian politics ever since the 1970s, constituting one of the major roots of its polarisation. Italian political discourse has given very little attention to young immigrants whose identity struggles have been put aside. We aim to break this silence by listening to a young immigrant’s experiences and addressing how she feel about her identity.

This piece investigates the interplay of identity acquisition and Italy’s civilians’ status recognition in recent years. Through a dialogue between two case-studies – the experience of a young immigrant acquiring Italian identity and that of a ‘‘born and raised’ Italian – we will consider the meaning of ‘Italianness’ and of the ‘right to stay’ in Italy. This interview touches on much broader themes as we explore the discrepancies between the identity and nationality of an individual and the states’ recognition and interpretation of both. Although the scope of this is very limited, as it will focus on the very specific and unique experiences of these individuals, this does not however mean their experiences do not speak to larger trends. As will be proven below, the Italian state fails to address the acquired Italian national identity of individuals in the citizenship process, instead they focus on ideas of ‘origin’, further reinforcing difference between immigrants and born-and-raised Italians.

Exploring ethno-nationalism, the idea of difference, and ‘Italianness’ in the current political climate

First, we must try to understand Italian nationalism, essentially what does it mean to be Italian? We explore the nationalist discourse in Italy, specifically with regards to radical right-wing parties including Lega Nord, Casa Pound. Both parties have based their politics on the exaltation of the Italian national identity in opposition to the idea of ‘others’, with the ultimate ideal that ‘Italians first.’ The leaders and activists of these parties, such as Matteo Salvini (federal secretary of Lega Nord), have candidly spoken in favour of the rejection of immigrants by addressing immigration as a threat to ‘Italianness’. Salvini tried to establish this institutionally, by proposing a decree that abolishes ‘humanitarian protection’ from the laws on immigration — “Testo unico sull’immigrazione (law 286/98) — as a valid reason for immigrants to be granted permission to stay in Italy. The decree did not go through, however it does demonstrate a clear anti-immigration stance.

Furthermore, these parties have taken difference a step further by marginalising ‘others’ who are Italian citizens but not of Italian ethnic origin or background. Former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge (in office 2013- 2014), a Congo-born Italian, was the victim of insults from Lega activists. The justification? She was not a true Italian due to her place of birth. This was not an isolated incident, on a radio show in June 2018, Salvini suggested that all foreign Rom nationals needed to be expelled from the country. The exception was made for those with Italian citizenship who “unfortunately we have to keep” (Salvini, 2018). The perpetuation of this idea that non-Italian origins take away from your ‘Italianness’ is dangerous, as it implies these people do not share the same rights as the ‘real Italians’. In this sense, right wing radical actors have further reinforced ideas of difference, specifically the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative. This narrative inherently excludes immigrants and refugees as well as Italians who do not meet their degree of ‘Italianness’.

The case of all immigrants: bureaucratic processes and ‘permissions to stay’

While the political landscape in Italy is marked by the presence of discourses on ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the Italian legal system is a further concrete application of this rhetoric. So, how does one legally integrate in the Italian state?

While tourism visas to visit Italy can last for a maximum of 3 months, non- EU immigrants who want to remain on Italian soil for longer than three months must apply for the ‘permesso di soggiorno’ (permission to stay). All non- EU migrants to Europe, whether looking for political asylum, for permission to work or study permits, equally apply through the same procedure. To apply, aside from an application form which enquires into nationality and motivations for the request, requires a payment of 60-100 euros, official documents and includes a stage of interview to the applicant. The permit will grant the immigrant the right to stay in Italy for a minimum of 12 months, and its renewal has to be initiated 60 days before the expiry dates. The process, in fact, can take up to 5 months. The only alternative to the permit of stay, is the application for the Italian Citizenship. This is acquired under iure sanguinis, a blood right of being born in Italy or adopted by Italian citizens. In the case of immigrants, citizenship can be acquired after 10 years of living in the country. In between the permit-of-stay and the grant of citizenship recognition, immigrants cannot get any different supporting documents. There are therefore only two recognitions of identity by the Italian state: ‘temporary’ permits of stay or ‘permanent’ citizenship.

The divide comes clear at our sight: either you are part of the state, or you are temporarily vising it. However, when spending time in a country, especially when spending years integrating, individuals’ identity arguably changes. Some immigrants may call themselves Italians before 10 years of living in Italy, as some may feel a little Italian from the first day. What the current system fails to recognize, therefore, is the process by which one acquires a new national identity.

Discrepancies between states’ recognition and individual identification with a nationality

The greatest problem of integration today is the discrepancy between identity acquisition by the individual and states’ perception of their status in society. As the interview has brought under our attention, one may develop or acquire an identity shortly after their arrival in a country. The factors which play into identity acquisition are several, from human interactions to language skills, and prove the ability of individuals to adopt cultural identity at a young age, and even when exposed to it for a short time. It follows that identity should not be measured in time nor should be neglected by ‘temporary’ recognitions of stay. Integration is impacted by this divisive system, which does not acknowledge identity. Maybe, the key to a better system of integration is  the promotion of identity acquisition and struggle.

All in all, in the framework of nationalist discourse, one’s past or ethnic origins are not a measure of their belonging or identity. Instead, we argue that identity depends on how one lives and relates to the social, political, cultural and economic environment they are in. In this piece, as Identity hunters, we have exposed the weaknesses of the Italian integration system and the identity struggle that several individuals undertake when immigrating to Italy.

Want to hear a first-hand experience?

Listen to our podcast!

Interview intro:

This interview is between Niya Namfua, Beatrice Catena and Monia Alhealou. Monia is a young Palestinian woman who moved to Italy from the Gaza Strip at the age of 16. In this podcast, Monia explores her feeling of identity and belonging, comparing her Palestinian self to her partial Italian identity. Through stuggles, rejections and challenges, Monia addresses the feeling of unknown and the Italian process of obtaining her legal ‘permission to stay’. Her testimony is a unique first-hand tale of a deep love for Italy, Identity struggles, and “feeling home”.

The hands are a reminder of the migrants and refugees who died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Courtesy of Rete Oltre il Ponte (Pescara, 2019). 

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