In this time when the race for the White House is unfolding, while Americans get ready to elect their next president, some Italian immigrants who live in America but are not American citizens reflect on the rights and duties they hold within the society they have chosen to live in. Prompted by private conversations I had with fellow Italians who like me live in America but are not American citizens, I have sought the opinions of seven of them, coming from various parts of Italy and living in various parts of America. To round up the discussion I have asked also the viewpoint of two Americans who are citizens by birth. The opinions I have gathered cover a wide range, from consensus to regret to dissent; all of them are interesting and unique. Taken in their entirety, they reveal the political discourse of two nations in which democratic debate remains alive and well.
Laura de M., teacher of Italian language immigrated from Torino and residing in San Francisco: “I think the situation could be described with the historical phrase “taxation without representation”, which was one of the key principles of the American revolution. American colonists were obliged to pay taxes to the mother country but had no right to vote, and that was one of the main reasons why they rebelled. So in my opinion the situation preceding American independence can be compared to that of Italian immigrants (as well as immigrants from all other countries) who live in America but are not or are not yet American citizens therefore can’t vote. We are obliged to pay taxes to the US treasury but we have no saying in the choices that most impact our lives in this country. In any case I don’t have a specific answer to this question, I’m only making an observation based on previous American history.”
Sandra F., nurse immigrated from Catanzaro and residing in Bayonne, NJ.: “There is no country that grants the right to vote to immigrants without citizenship. In fact in Italy you need to wait ten years before you can become a citizen, whereas in the United States it’s five years and in Canada only three. So I don’t see why the United States should be the exception to the laws of other countries.”
Luca T., product manager immigrated from L’Aquila and residing in Silicon Valley: “The question of immigrants’ rights goes well beyond voting privileges. Very few Americans for instance know that male non-citizens from age 18 to age 25 must register with the US Selective service. That’s the obligation to serve in the US Armed Forces, which is done according to the infamous “lottery” system used during the Vietnam War. When my oldest son turned 18 he had to register for the US Selective Service, on pain of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. It’s a truly anomalous situation of forced recruitment, whereas in Italy mandatory service in the Armed Forces was abolished several years ago. Mandatory registration with the Selective Service extends also to undocumented males; it seems ever more absurd to expect an undocumented male to show up at a recruiting station.”
Nicola C., CPA immigrated from Sorano (Province of Grosseto) and residing in Pennsylavia: “This of voting privileges is the main question but not the only one. Years ago I received a summons for jury duty at a criminal trial (they didn’t call me to fill out in person the questionnaire they use to determine whether prospective jurors have the needed requisites, they just sent me a letter). In the letter was the box: “Are you an American citizen?” I checked “No,” I mailed the letter back and I was automatically disqualified. I don’t understand why American law considers an immigrant basically incapable of telling right from wrong. I graduated from Boston University; in order to enroll, I and all other foreign students had to pass with nothing less than an A a mandatory course on American history and government, and it’s a very thorough course. Sometimes I think I know American history and government better than many Americans, yet I don’t have the right (which is also a duty) to serve on a jury, i.e. to fulfill a civic function that is fundamental to the juridic system of all democratic countries. This is something that perhaps bothers me even more than not being able to vote.”
Loredana C., student, Nicola’s daughter: “To widen the discussion, something else that is outside the reach of immigrants without citizenship is receiving government-sponsored scholarships and government jobs. To put it succintly, America doesn’t trust us with anything that has to do with its government. Just because someone has sworn an oath to the American Constitution doesn’t mean that person will remain faithful to the Constitution. We all know that many terrorists have become American citizens thru fully legal process. Perhaps my criticism will sound harsh, but I am talking about verifiable facts.”
Domenico G., engineer immigrated from Albano Laziale and residing in Portland, Oregon: “I think the right to vote could be granted to immigrants who live and work in the US for at least two years, which is to say after they give concrete proof that they want to be productive members of society. The two years could be also spent doing social volunteering, with the same number of hours as a full-time job. Serving the community on a regular basis would also be a concrete demonstration of wanting to contribute to society in good faith.”
Danilo A., electrician immigrated from Gorizia and residing in New York: “There are people who become American citizens by being born in America, and there are people who do it with a fake marriage. My family and I have been living in new York for 32 years. We haven’t become American citizens and I don’t think we will, for reasons that are not necessary to discuss here but valid reasons. So we have to pay income taxes and property taxes but we’re not allowed to vote. A person can be born in America simply by chance, whereas my family and I made the decision to live here. I think a decision should be worth more than a simple chance of birth and certainly more than a fake marriage.”
Jessica W., store owner in Connecticut: “My husband and I were born in America. My husband is of Italian descent, so he was able to obtain citizenship jure sanguinis. Our minor children have also automatically become Italian citizens, as provided by the Ministero. As the spouse of an Italian citizen, I was allowed to become an Italian citizen jure matrimonii, and my citizenship was granted three years after my application. I can’t really pronounce myself categorically on the matter of granting voting rights to immigrants in America. I would like for them to have the rights, but unfortunately that’s the way American law is. For my husband and me, being Italian citizens and being able to vote in Italy is a source of pride.”
Andrew D., retired government employee born and raised in Florida: “I’d never thought about that, but now that I think about it, it does seem unfair. In my opinion those who choose America as their adoptive country should be given the right to vote after a certain amount of time spent living and working continuously in America, and obviously if they don’t have a criminal record. I would say after five years, to be applied also if the person decides not to become an American citizen after the five years required to become one. But I really don’t think it will ever happen, especially now when in America there’s talk of drastically reducing immigration.”
As we have seen, opinions differ, as do the various perspectives from which the question is observed. Regardless of what the opinions might be, the fact remains that at these upcoming elections a very large sector of the American population without citizenship, including Italian immigrants, will have to depend on the choices made by those who are allowed to vote. Few voters therefore realize that they vote also for those who can’t. Fair or unfair, it’s the law.
I would like to conclude with a quote by Luigi Barzini: “Nobody better than an immigrant can tell you all the things that are wrong with your country. Immigrants are tabula rasa; they didn’t grow up with the myths that your country works into you. They know us better than we know ourselves, because their expectations are higher and their disappointment is sharper.”
Flavia Ida`, San Francisco