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Italian parties clash over citizenship rights for immigrant children

by Manuela Perrone

Italy’s political parties are fighting over a new draft law that would extend citizenship rights to some children born to immigrants living in the country. This week the Senate will examine the bill, one of the most controversial of this end of the legislature. Known as “ius soli”, in reality it foresees a moderate version of the system – citizenship for children born in Italy to foreign parents when one holds a permit to stay in the country for at least five years – and an “ius culturae”, or rights to citizenship for minors that arrive in Italy before the age of 12 who have concluded at least one school cycle. This includes a potential pool of 800,000 children.

Today the law on citizenship for children of immigrants, that dates to 1992, is highly restrictive: only children born in Italy to foreign parents can become an Italian citizen, and only once they have turned 18.

The solution drawn up by parliament would bring Italian legislation close to that of countries such as France, Germany and Britain. The Vatican has shown several signs of support for the law proposal: “We are close to those who are in need, those who are weak, and those who need protection,” said Angelo Becciu, the Vatican’s deputy secretary of state.

His words were echoed by Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, president of Catholic charity Caritas, who said: “We cannot say to children born in this country, who have grown up next to our children, who have studied with them and who maybe do not even know the native language of their parents, that they cannot be Italian.”

But the political forces are divided. Former premier Matteo Renzi’s left-leaning Democratic Party (PD) and other left-wing groups, are in favor of the measure. They have been joined by the centrist allies of the government, but only after some grumbling and the declarations from the Church.

Matteo Salvini’s Northern League is strongly against the bill, in line with his Marine Le Pen-style movement’s aggressive battle against immigration, alongside the right-wing Brothers of Italy party. The Northern League has filed 80,000 amendments in the Senate, with a clear obstructionist intent, and their opposition even escalated into scuffles in the upper house chamber, which led to Education Minister Valeria Fedeli being treated in the Senate infirmary. They speak of “ethnic substitution” and “speculation on the skin of children.”

Surprisingly, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has also opposed the bill. Its leader, comedian Beppe Grillo, has defined the text “a mess” that cannot be supported, invoking a decision by the European Union. But the EU commissioner for migration froze him out, reminding him that citizenship is a question under the strict competence of each member state. Grillo’s stance is aimed at shifting the M5S to the right, using the issue of security, after the movement’s flop in the local elections. And it is also a wink at the Northern League, in view of possible future alliances after the general election due in 2018. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi from the center-right Forza Italia party had a severe judgment for the bill: “citizenship should be deserved.”

The law’s destiny remains uncertain, even if Senate President Pietro Grasso had hoped for the go-ahead by the summer or at least within the year. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s (PD) government could ask for a confidence vote to secure its passing. Its approval would be an important signal for a center-left executive. It is another law of civility for Italy, beyond the civil unions law that was approved last year. That also managed to pass after having navigated the same tempestuous waters, amid arguments and fierce opposition.