[The following article was published on Immigration Here and There in August, 2006.  To see Alex Ragir’s video on the website of Current TV]

Heber Oliveira is not a typical immigrant. He’s 24, middle class and a college student.

Yet, he’s an immigrant, migrating for opportunity, rather than necessity — a 21st century global citizen with hopes to reap the spoils of globalization. Flying to Europe and paying college tuition abroad is a luxury otherwise reserved for the developing-world elite or middle-class North Americans or Europeans, but now Oliveira too is one of the privileged.

A strong Brazilian currency, cheap communication and a notoriously loose Italian citizenship law allow him to immigrate without much sacrifice.

The unlikely person most deserving of his thanks? Oliveira’s Italian great-great-grandfather.

With proof of one direct ancestor, Italy is by far the easiest country in the European Union to get citizenship. It is virtually impossible to lose Italian nationality and more than 25 million people are eligible for Italian citizenship worldwide, according to Guido Tintori of the International and European Forum on Migration Research, or FIERI.

Becoming a citizen

Oliveira has recently acquired Italian citizenship and an EU passport, which means he can attend publicly-funded colleges, get free health care, work anywhere in the EU and get an immediate tourist visa to enter the United States.

His checklist for Italian citizenship: borrow money from his parents, pay for a document researcher to find official documents that prove his bloodline back to Italy, save money working in England, take a flight to Italy, rent an apartment near Rome and apply for citizenship as an Italian resident.

He could have applied from his native Sao Paulo consulate but there is a long backlog of applications in these understaffed bureaucracies, and many Italian-Brazilians wait from 2 to 15 years to get citizenship. To expedite the process, slews of Brazilians and Argentines with Italian ancestry are applying in Italy as residents.

In the late 1800s, millions of Italians fled famine and disease to the labor-thirsty frontiers of Brazil and Argentina. But now tables have turned. Argentina is still recovering from one of its worst economic crises and Brazil is still plagued with stifling inequality and opportunity-absorbing corruption. With limited opportunity in South America, many Italian descendants are migrating, like their ancestors, for a better life.

Brazil has one of the highest interest rates in the world economy, slowing economic growth but strengthening the currency, making jobs scarce, but travel cheap.

“The past two years has been crazy with Brazilians coming in looking for work,” said Pieira Feloj, the liaison for immigrants at Italy’s largest union, CISL. This “boom” of Brazilians is almost exclusively people with Italian ancestry, she said in an interview in her office in Verona.

“Business executives, electricians, bricklayers, you name it,” she said. “The interesting thing is the Brazilians all have some type of technical skills or at least some education, which is good compared to the African immigrants who generally don’t have a craft.”

Rome considers Italian anyone who has a direct ancestor from Italy, whether they have Italian citizenship or have not yet recognized their citizenship. This citizenship law, revised in 1992, was meant to encourage white, Christian immigration and reduce North African, Moslem immigration, said Tintori, who researches citizenship in Italy.

“But this was a boomerang policy,” said Tintori. “Many don’t stay in Italy so you are not granting citizenship to people who are working or paying taxes here.”

Young, skilled laborers like Oliveira would be a needed shot in the arm for Italy’s lagging economy and could help support expensive social programs and an aging workforce.

But Tintori said a trend of Argentines and Brazilians with Italian citizenship is to move to culturally closer Spain or Portugal and eventually to England or the U.S.

Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, has repeatedly voiced his concern about these immigrants’ ulterior motives for getting citizenship, Tintori said. On Oct. 25, 2005, on the political talk show, Porta a Porta, Fini said: “I have realized something in South America that made me think a lot: many nephews or sons of Italians who migrated many years ago are now applying for Italian citizenship. They don’t speak a word of Italian. They just want our passport to get more chances to enter the United States.”

Any afternoon in the OneUp cafe

One summer afternoon, a dozen Brazilians speak Portuguese with an Italian twang outside the OneUp, an Internet cafe in Verona. The common topic of conversation: Italian citizenship.

“I just got my Italian ID Thursday,” said Evaneu, 23, from Southern Brazil, who works putting up dry wall. “Look, I even have an Italian credit card.”

“It’s hard to get a credit card in Brazil,” said Eliseu, 24, a painter, from Northeastern Brazil, who already is an Italian citizen.

At the OneUp, Argentines and Brazilians chat with friends back home on video internet phones, send text messages to cell phones in South America, meet other South Americans in Italy on chat rooms and send Euros to their families for a low fee.

This immigrant group may be more socio-economically diverse than any other.

Even Brazil’s first lady, Marisa Letícia, acquired citizenship reportedly so she could vote for a left-leaning candidate in the recent Italian presidential elections.

The captain of Brazil’s national soccer squad, “Cafu,” was acquitted earlier this year of passport fraud after prosecutors alleged Cafu and Argentine Gustavo Bartelt used false documents to gain Italian citizenship and join AS Roma, circumventing the limit on non-European players the club allows.

Even American movie star Robert DeNiro has Italian citizenship.

After an hour in the lobby of the OneUp cafe, the diversity is evident. A man in a suit, a group of painters, a blond-haired prostitute in spandex, a mother with two little girls, a young free-spirited Brazilian backpacker, a bricklayer. All these South Americans were either in the process of getting, or already had, Italian citizenship.

According to Tintori’s research, 65.4 percent of the 538,000 Italian passports issued outside of Italy were from consulates in Argentina and Brazil.

Tintori said the Italian government does not release statistics on the issue. After about a dozen requests in over a month to Giuseppe Giacolone, a press representative for Italy’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, he said the statistics were not available of late. He would not comment further.

By calling consulates outside of Italy, Tintori found that Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia and Uruguay issued the most Italian passports from 1998 to 2004. In Argentina more than 237,000 and in Brazil more than 119,000 Italian passports were issued during this period, Tintori said.

While it is largely expected that Italy’s new left-center Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is going to reform Italian immigration policies for illegal workers, the question of citizenship by the bloodline has been gravely underreported and almost nonexistent in public debate, said Patrick Weil, a senior research fellow at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

When in Rome, then in the rest of Europe

The philosophy that nationality is passed down through the blood dates back to the Roman Empire. Countries in the Americas generally believe nationality is tied to the land where a person was born, regardless of the individual’s descendants.

Weil said the bloodline citizenship policy is racist because it gives utmost priority to white immigrants, whether they have ties to the country or not. ” Getting rights without socializing or speaking the language doesn’t facilitate integration,” he said.

France and England also uphold policies of citizenship by the bloodline but resident immigrants also have a path toward citizenship. Italy’s policy of immigrants without Italian blood becoming Italian is one of the strictest policies in Europe. The only way to become Italian for most immigrants is through marriage, according to government statistics.

French citizenship applicants have to prove ties to the nation’s culture and history. This is why only a few dozen people a year gain citizenship by the bloodline in France, said Weil, the author of a research paper called Access to Citizenship: A Comparison of Twenty Five Nationality Laws.

Despite having the second easiest citizenship by bloodline policy, Ireland, also historically a country of emigration, had one tenth the amount of people acquire citizenship by bloodline in the past decade than Italy had in seven years ending 2004, according to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. To get citizenship by bloodline in Ireland, an applicant needs proof of one Irish parent or grandparent, dead or alive.

But the real number of people who acquire citizenship through their ancestors is much higher than Tintori’s estimate. His estimate does not include the increasing number of people, like Oliveira, who apply for citizenship in Italy and people who get citizenship without applying for a passport.

Portugal is another country with a more generous citizenship by bloodline policy, but it is far less commonly used than in Italy with only 12,000 people acquiring citizenship by bloodline last year, said citizenship researcher José Carlos Marques from the University of Coimbra in Portugal. To get citizenship by bloodline in Portugal, an applicant needs proof of one living Portuguese parent, grandparent or great-grandparent.

Other countries like England, Spain, Germany, and Belgium have relatively easy citizenship by bloodline policies, although more restrictive than Italy, Ireland or Portugal. Many Eastern European EU countries have as loose policies as Italy but wars and border changes make documents very hard to find.

How things have changed

Lazaro Jose da Silva, 40, the Italian-Brazilian owner of the OneUp cafe, came to Italy 16 years ago to connect the dots of who he is and where he came from. He was a manager of a bank but yearned to understand what his ancestors experienced and travel the world. “But when I got to Verona I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “I sold newspapers on the freeway. All I ate was pollution for months.”

As the recent influx of South Americans moving to Italy booms, Lazaro said more people are ending up homeless or are turning to prostitution. “It’s not as easy at it seems, ” said da Silva. “It’s still being an immigrant, new language, culture.”

Brazilians like Luciando da Costa Assim, 44, who came 17 years ago, didn’t have the luxury of a strong currency or welcoming Internet cafes. For him, adjusting was hard. He fled because of Brazil’s taboo of homosexuality and he didn’t want to humiliate his children by coming out of the closet. So he came to Italy.

“But I couldn’t make a living,” he said, explaining how he got into the sex trade in Verona. “Since I was already gay, I became a transvestite. And as a transvestite doing this job here, you make a lot of money.”

Assim said he sends $2,000 to his family every month.

The manual laborers are the best off in Italy, said Imir Mulato, 55, who works as a document researcher in Northern Italy for Italian South Americans who want citizenship. “The son of a bank manager has no place here,” he said. “People who have a trade like masonry or carpentry, those are the people that survive. The middle-class Brazilians who go to college in Brazil have no use here. They’d do better in England, where the culture is more open to foreigners. Italians are very xenophobic.”

Fabio Menuzzo, 30, worked illegally as a dish washer, a doorman and a busboy in London for about two years before he had the roughly 3,000 pounds needed to get the documents together for his Italian citizenship. He flew to Italy, rented an apartment in Italy for two months, continued working in England, and went back to Italy to pick up his citizenship papers.

“I felt like I was back home when I was in Italy,” he said in the kitchen of his 2-bedroom flat in the outskirts of West London, where he lives with his wife and two other Italian-Brazilians. After about three years, his English is good and now his paperwork is in order.

“I really liked Italy though,” he said, his wife turning her head quickly.

“We are not moving there,” said his wife, Graziela Cristina Menuzzo, 24. “If we go there we might as well go back to Brazil.”