ROME – Arguably, the gap between personal popularity and political influence rarely has been clearer here in Italy than over Christmastime 2017, as Pope Francis continues to bask in strong popular acclaim even as he watches il bel paese abandon one of his most cherished social objectives this year.
This week, the Italian Senate definitively dropped the idea of passing an ius soli law, which would grant the children of immigrants citizenship by birth rather than forcing them to go through a complicated and expensive bureaucratic process when they turn 18, which many never complete. The bill’s failure became automatic when senators from the center-right party and the populist “Five Star Movement” walked out, along with several from the governing center-left Democratic Party, denying the senate a quorum.
The measure was remanded to next March, by which time the legislature will already be dissolved in anticipation of a new general election. The bill was approved by the lower house of parliament in 2016, where the Democrats have a large majority, but was blocked in the more narrowly divided senate.
Debate over the ius soli proposal has divided Italy all year, with critics usually asserting it will further fuel high immigration levels and undermine national security – the far-right Northern League campaigned against the bill using the twitter handle “stop the invasion” – while advocates describe it as a matter of basic human rights and the obligations of civilization.
In effect, the ius soli debate is a referendum for how Italy is reacting to its changing demographics, with all manner of nationalities – Moroccans, Filipinos, Romanians, Chinese Libyans, and on and on – settling in the country and raising children, most of whom speak fluent Italian and integrate into the local culture, yet are not seen as fully “Italian” by many. The conflicts those shifts have opened up have occasionally turned violent, including a scuffle in parliament in July and clashes between police and protestors on both sides of the argument.
Francis and his lieutenants in the Italian Catholic hierarchy have done everything they can to lend moral support to the campaign for the ius soli law.
At a weekly general audience Sep. 27, Francis extended his arms wide toward St. Peter’s Square and called faithful to welcome migrants and refugees.
“Just like this,” the pope said, “arms wide open, ready for a sincere, affectionate, enveloping embrace.” He then praised the work done by the civil organizations involved in collecting signatures in order to push the ius soli legislation forward.
This wasn’t the first, nor most adamant time the pope publicly expressed his support for the legislation. In his message for the 2018 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis said, “in line with the universal right to citizenship, it must be recognized and appropriately certified to all young boys and girls from the moment of birth.”
That line deeply irritated opponents of the ius soli law, who exulted with its failure this week.
“Hit and sunk. Dead and buried. For me this is a great victory,” said Robert Calderoli, a Northern League senator, calling the ius soli an “absurd and useless proposal.”
The Italian bishops battled for the law up to the last minute. This past Wednesday, speaking at a conference on integration, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, President of the Episcopal Conference of Italy, couldn’t have been clearer.
“When people share elements of civilization and co-existence, when they go to school together, when they share an ethos, why shouldn’t there be this ius soli, also for little ones, as a fundamental right of the human person?” Bassetti said.
“The word ‘integration’ means peace,” Bassetti said. “It means you’re another me, not assimilation. And that’s the basis of the right to citizenship, which I’ve always affirmed. Someone living in a place they chose, who shares its elements of civilization and co-existence, why shouldn’t they have this fundamental right?”
Bassetti is very much Francis’s man, having been appointed by the pontiff as president of the bishops’ conference in May, when Francis also extended his term in Perugia another five years despite the fact Bassetti is over 75. Francis named the Tuscan native a cardinal in 2014.
None of that, however, was enough to cajole the Italian senate into action.
Neither can Francis and the Italian bishops take much comfort in the hope that things will change after the elections in march, since polls at the moment suggest the Five Star Movement has a slight edge over the Democrats, while the center-right Forza Italia, party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, scored unexpected gains in regional elections in June.
With several months still to go, and Italy’s complicated election law further muddying the waters, it’s far from certain that whatever government emerges will be favorable to the ius soli proposal.