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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Italy Invites Ethnic Italians In San Diego To ‘Come Back Home’

Italy is appealing to ethnic Italians in San Diego and around the world to become citizens of the old country, in hopes it will beef up their dwindling native population.

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. San Diegan Sal Gelardi had already been granted his Italian citizenship.

"A few weeks ago I received a postcard from the town where my mother was born saying I could vote there,” said Gelardi. “So that's how I found out I was an Italian citizen."

Americans like Gelardi 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.

By one count, at least 2,500 people in San Diego County are Americans who are also Italian citizens. It's 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.

Italian Americans have variety of reasons for wanting to become Italian citizens. Victor Laruccia is director of the San Diego Italian Film Festival.

"Well, obviously the emotional connection is very important,” said Laruccia. “But I also have a grandson, and I really like the idea of having him make the decisions about where he'd like to live, work and be educated."

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

The man at the hub of the scene in Little Italy's cultural center was a charming Neapolitan and former Italian air force colonel named Roberto Ruocco. He’s the go-to guy for San Diegans who want to apply for Italian citizenship.

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 she could fill out to get the process started.

To the nation of Italy, according to Ruocco, this is a chance to reclaim families who left generations ago and went on to become educated professionals in the U.S. He said hard times over the years have forced so many Italians to emigrate, and it has been a huge brain drain for the country.

"It’s been a loss of expertise, a loss of, if you will, cultural investment on these Italians,” he said. “And now, the law wants them back."

There's another reason for courting Americans: Low birth rates. And Italians don't want to rely on immigration to bolster their population because Italy is one of many countries that see blood ties as the foundation of their citizenship and national identity.

Ruocco said that's why Italy is searching the ranks of ethnic Italians in North and South America for fresh blood.

"Because right now the new births in Italy are of children born to people from African countries, or Eastern countries or the Chinese countries, so the identity of the Italians as such could be lost in the future," said Ruocco.

John Skrentny is director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, and he points out that Italy is not alone. Many countries in Europe and East Asia have seen their birthrates fall dangerously low.

"They are undergoing an unprecedented demographic challenge,” said Skrentny. “The world has never seen this before, where birthrates have plummeted well below replacement level.”

It is very common for countries to found citizenship on blood or ethnic ties. That’s why so many other countries with low birth rates are similarly reluctant to view immigration as the solution.

"And so what you'll see in these places like Italy is an effort to balance this. They want to get more people to come, but they want to balance this concern with maintaining their national identity," said Skrentny.

On the other hand, Skrentny doesn’t think much of the Italian effort to lure Italian Americans back to the old country. He said it won't solve Italy's problem. It's not going to fill the future workforce or keep its welfare state solvent. In fact, Skrentny called it a pretty desperate move.

Most of the Italian Americans I spoke to expressed a true love of the Italian culture and they saw dual citizenship as an intriguing opportunity. But none of them saw Italy as the place where they would make their fortunes or raise their families.

One Italian American from Orange County, Chris Clark, told me he can't be sure what dual citizenship will mean to his future, but he plans to go to Italy and find out.

"I'm going there with no plan,” said Clark. “I'm going to eventually buy a one-way ticket and go there and see what happens."

For now, maybe that's good enough for Roberto Ruocco and the Italian nation.

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