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Want to be Italian? Just apply yourself.

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Joseph Jorgensen carries both his Italian and his U.S. passport whenever he travels. He decides which one to use once he arrives at customs, based on "whichever line is shorter." (Photo by Mary Cuddehe)

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Nick Iovacchini, left, who was born and raised in the United States, played baseball as an Italian citizen for the Italian national team in 2002. (Courtesy of Nick Iovacchini)

Jessica Amato, a 30-year-old anthropology professor from San Francisco, has a name for born-and-bred Americans of Italian ancestry who apply for Italian citizenship.

She calls them sleeper citizens.

“With this Italian citizenship, you’ve had it your whole life,” said Amato, who is eligible even though both her parents and her grandparents were born in the United States. “So you’re just applying for activation.”

Italian law allows foreigners of Italian descent to claim citizenship even if they have to go back four generations to link to an ancestor who was born in Italy. The concept of applying for citizenship that is technically already yours, called jure sanguinis (Latin for “by right of blood”), isn’t unique to Italy, of course. But what distinguishes Italy from other European countries is that others don’t recognize the so-called blood right in the progeny of émigrés more than two generations down the line.

That means that if you’re an American who wants Italian citizenship, you can reach back to your great-great grandfather Giuseppe and make it happen—at least in theory.

The Italian government doesn’t make it easy to apply (it takes an average of three years and costs about $1,000), but thousands of Americans are doing it despite the bureaucratic tangle involved. (If you have any doubts about just how tangled the process can be, consider the fact that the Italian embassy wouldn’t even respond to requests for information on how many Americans have become dual Italian citizens, and calls to consulates around the country went unanswered.)

Dual Italian citizenship connects Americans to more than their heritage. They can freely work, retire, invest or get health care in any of the 27 member states of the European Union.

The appeal of Italian citizenship comes “from the economic standpoint of somebody that is doing well,” said Giuseppina Spillane, who fields citizenship queries as a program director at the National Italian-American Foundation.

Spillane compared the attitudes of North Americans with that of South Americans who fled to Northern Italy following Argentina’s economic meltdown in the early 2000s. “Argentineans were really in need of basic necessities and some sort of help by the government,” she said. Americans, by contrast, have the attitude of “I can invest by buying property over there, retire over there. I can go to school there, get a master’s.”

Dona DeSanctis, the executive editor of Italian America magazine, said she’s seen “many more” applications during the last five years. Spillane confirmed that assessment, saying Italian citizenship was now “very much in demand” and that consulates and the ministry of interior were “very overwhelmed” with applications. So overwhelmed, apparently, that the Chicago consulate has stopped accepting them until 2009, according to a recorded voice mail message.

If you don’t enjoy the sound of recorded messages, there’s help. Donald McLean, the owner of myitaliancitizenship.com, a six-year-old company based in Nova Scotia that helps citizens-to-be gather documents, said 100 new customers a month sign up for $55 document searches.

McLean said he didn’t know why jure sanguinis citizenship has become so popular. “It’s a curiosity why so many Americans are getting it,” he said, suggesting it might have to do with increased Internet usage.

Anthony Tamburri, the dean of the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College in New York City, said he wasn’t sure, either, though he believed that awareness of citizenship eligibility increased in the run-up to the 2006 general elections in Italy.

The Silvio Berlusconi government “fought hard for Italians living abroad to vote,” at least in part, Tamburri said, because of the perceived conservative leanings of the Italian-American population. (The first-ever mail-in ballots in the country’s history didn’t win Berlusconi the election, however; his party, the Forza Italia, narrowly lost to the Romano Prodi party.)

The uptick in applications also matches a surge in Italian ethnic pride in the United States, said DeSanctis, the editor of Italian America Magazine. “Italians always aimed to blend in because they were a despised minority,” she said. Yet between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, the number of people who identified as being from Italian descent increased by more than 4 million. “What that indicates is a greater ethnic awareness,” said DeSanctis, pointing to the worldwide “balkanization of ethnicity” as a cause.

Italian-Americans often “don’t speak Italian. They’ve only been to Italy on vacation. But they want to identify with their Italian roots,” DeSanctis said, adding that dual citizenship is one way to do that.

For Nick Iovacchini, the 28-year-old owner of a sports apparel company in Hoboken, N.J., becoming an Italian citizen gave him the chance to play baseball overseas.

Iovacchini was a junior at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, playing shortstop and second base for the school team, the Owls, when an Italian team recruited him in 2002. The Bollate, from the province on the outskirts of Milan, were allowed only so many foreign players. Iovacchini, as an Italian citizen, wouldn’t count.

“They said the key to you doing this is getting your Italian citizenship,” he said. “I wasn’t the world’s greatest player, so it’s not like I had a big, bright professional career here in the States in front of me.”

He and his father, Eric Iovacchini, an attorney who has since founded Bella Consultants, based in Asheville, N.C., to help people with their own applications, soon realized what dual citizenship could mean for their family beyond “the baseball side of things.”

With global perceptions of U.S. hegemony at an all-time low, having European citizenship is a definite plus. “It’s so practical,” said McLean. “It opens up a whole section of the world.”

“You never know when you’re going to want to pull out a European passport,” said Iovacchini, who always travels with both passports. One time he landed at an airport in South America where there was a long customs line for Americans, who had to pay $90 to enter the country. But there was a second line for Europeans. And they got to walk through for free.

E-mail: mec2154@columbia.edu