A charged political atmosphere in the United States and the country's coronavirus response has contributed to a surge of interest among Americans who want to claim Italian citizenship, according to Permunian, the founder of Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA).
"I have never seen anything like this in my decade-long career," says Permunian, whose agency helps foreigners obtain Italian passports.
Permunian, who has a clientele that is 95% American, says that requests for his service increased by up to 400% compared to last year as the coronavirus pandemic exploded in the United States. That comes on top of increased interest following the divisive 2016 US election.
"Currently, we have a team of more than 60 people working in our firm, in both our Italian and US offices," he says. In order to keep up with demand, his agency has had to nearly double in size in just a matter of months.
Italy could benefit if the new passport holders decide to relocate. The country has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and a stagnant economy, and it
has in recent years offered tax incentives to foreign workers and retirees who become residents, as well as the super rich.
People born in the United States are automatically US citizens. But that principle doesn't apply to most countries in Europe, where citizenship is inherited through parents or family.
That means some Americans who descend from immigrants are eligible to become Italian citizens. The main requirement is that the family member who immigrated from Italy to the United States did not become naturalized before the birth of the next person in the line of descent.
If an applicant qualifies for citizenship, it can take up to two years to secure a new passport.
Jim Cavallaro, a professor and the executive director of the University Network for Human Rights, is a recent Italian citizen and client of Permunian's. He and his daughter began seriously pursuing Italian citizenship after President Donald Trump was elected.
"In 2016 and 2017, with the current administration, I began to see worrisome signs of decay of the institutional integrity of the democratic processes in the United States. I began to be concerned; I thought this is a country which is very polarized ... in which I think the national priorities have skewed off course," says Cavallaro.
Some Americans are attracted by benefits of Italian citizenship including universal health care, affordable university tuition and the right to work and reside anywhere in the European Union. The passport also means better travel opportunities.
According to the Passport Index, a passport ranking website run by advisory firm Arton Capital, an Italian passport now means easy access to 133 countries. Coronavirus travel restrictions mean that an American passport, once among the most powerful in the world, temporarily grants holders easy access to only 97 countries.
Italy was hit hard during the early days of the pandemic and cases are rising once again — accompanied by tighter restrictions. But the country succeeded in bringing the virus under control over the summer months, and the government's response hasn't been heavily politicized.
Romance novelist Kristen Helmstetter and her family started the process of obtaining Italian citizenship before the pandemic. Now living in Italy, they were able to see the difference in how the two countries were handling the virus during a trip back to Arizona in February.
"We were grateful to come back to Italy when we did. We were given the choice and we chose to come back to Italy knowing that ... there was a global pandemic."
For some, the pandemic has become a time to rethink assumptions once taken for granted.
"There are decisions about how a state should be run that I think are becoming more and more clear to people in the United States and people are beginning to question, is this the best place in the world to live? And I think the answer increasingly ... not necessarily," says Cavallaro.
Permunian believes more doors open with two passports.
"An Italian passport can open up many business opportunities in Italy and the rest of the Europe," he says. "Many employers see having a team member with two passports as a great asset which can lead to possibilities some can only dream about."
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