The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their ancestors came to America. After Dobbs, they want out.

The curtailing of abortion rights and general political turmoil have made many in the U.S. see dual citizenship as an escape hatch

Anthony Del Grosso at his home in Albuquerque. Del Grosso, 28, has begun the process of obtaining dual citizenship by descent in Italy. (Adria Malcolm for The Washington Post)
11 min

On the morning of June 27, Julie Schäfer logged into her work computer and sat stunned at what she saw. The lawyer at Schlun & Elseven in Düsseldorf often helps Americans obtain dual citizenship in Germany, and that Monday morning, she scrolled and scrolled and kept scrolling. A flood of more than 300 inquiries had piled up in the firm’s inbox.

The Friday before, the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the 49-year-old precedent Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion nationwide; in Germany, abortion is decriminalized before 12 weeks with mandatory counseling, and in other cases when a pregnancy is deemed a threat to the pregnant person’s mental or physical health. Following the ruling, which came just as the staff in Germany was clocking out for the night, frantic Americans flocked to the firm’s website, creating a tenfold spike in clicks on its questionnaire to determine eligibility for dual citizenship.

After inquiries poured in all weekend, Schäfer says, Monday felt like “the aftermath.” Many were seeking dual citizenship through a German ancestor; a handful mentioned in their messages that they were fearful about losing access to abortion care. Of those, a plurality came from Texas.

By now, we all know the stirring stories about immigrants’ arduous journeys to America ― about Ellis Island, about huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Now, though, the sudden nationwide curtailing of abortion rights and the assorted political turmoil of the summer have pushed many U.S. citizens to start the process of obtaining second citizenships in countries that grant them to direct descendants of nationals. Immigrants’ American-born grand- and great-grandchildren are grasping backward through time and bureaucracy, hoping their ancestors might now provide them with a way to start over back in the motherland. Or at least provide them with a quick, visa-free way to live and work elsewhere for a while, in case of emergency. An escape hatch, some say. A backup plan. A parachute.

In 1910, 10-year-old Calogero Cirafisi left his birthplace of Agrigento, Sicily, with his family. They landed in Norristown, Pa., where Calogero became Charles, according to his granddaughter, Helen Kirbo. A 22-year-old photography student who lives in Atlanta, Kirbo has learned all of this in the process of seeking dual citizenship in Italy.

When a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision leaked in early May, Kirbo was disturbed by the notion that, if what was outlined in the draft came to pass, “my mom would have had more rights to her body than I [do now], growing up.” She began to explore the idea of moving abroad after she graduates from college in 2023.

In June, though, Kirbo learned from a friend about Italy’s jure sanguinis policy, which essentially guarantees citizenship eligibility to anyone who can prove themselves to be a direct descendant of an Italian citizen (with a few caveats). “It was like the out I was always looking for,” Kirbo says. “And immediately after Roe v. Wade was officially overturned, it was like, there was no question for me.” In Italy, abortion has been legal upon request and performed free of charge since 1978.

Italy also has one of the most relaxed policies in Europe regarding citizenship by descent, though it requires all applicants to submit multiple vital records for each person in the line of descent — which can take years to pull together. According to Giorgio Nusiner of the Italian American Citizenship Assistance Program, which has offices in Florida and Italy, inquiries from Americans seeking help applying for dual citizenship have come in this year at double the rate of last year.

For Paige, a 31-year-old in Chicago, it was the back-to-back heartaches of the Dobbs decision and the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill., just a half-hour from her home.

Paige, who works in sustainability and who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name, because she’s still figuring out her next moves with her employer, hopes to start a family soon. But looking at the widely circulated maps floating around of post-Roe America, she has begun to keep a mental list of states she wouldn’t feel comfortable living in or even traveling to. She wouldn’t want to have a miscarriage or a pregnancy complication in a state where she may not be able to access abortion care, for example, or suddenly need a medicine that doctors or pharmacists might deny her on the grounds that it could cause an abortion. The Independence Day parade attack, which came just over a week after the Dobbs decision, underlined the urgency. “Gun violence is a very real thing here in a lot of ways, but I think it just got a little too personal,” she said. “I’ve been a Chicago kid in the suburbs at a Fourth of July parade. I didn’t sleep at all that night.”

Paige’s search for a relative whose lineage could offer her an out hasn’t been as successful as Kirbo’s; her Slovakian great-grandparents, she learned recently, were born in a town that’s just outside the borders of present-day Slovakia (where abortion is legal on request up to 12 weeks after conception, and for medical reasons later on). Now, she’s researching ways to legally work in the United Kingdom, where abortion is legal up to 24 weeks after conception.

“It’s a prudent thing to do, to know how you can escape the burning building,” she says. Paige and her husband hope to leave next year.

Gabrielle Stoner, 27, began the process of obtaining dual citizenship by descent in Ireland after the Uvalde, Tex., shooting and the Dobbs decision, which both made Stoner fearful about the possibility of one day raising kids in the United States: “Reproductive freedom includes the freedom to know that your babies will be safe,” she says.

She also paid grim attention to Clarence Thomas’s written opinion implying that same-sex marriage rights could be up for reexamination next. And she fears that the Dobbs decision could create complications for those seeking treatments such as in vitro fertilization and sperm donation. Stoner, a copywriter who’s in a same-sex relationship, knows that in the future she’s “going to rely on those resources to have a family.”

Ireland was a conservative country when Stoner’s mother left in the 1970s, Stoner says. “But now, they’ve repealed the abortion bans and same-sex marriage bans, and they just seem to be moving in the right direction.” An Irish passport could be her ticket to Ireland or another European Union country; Stoner and her partner are still figuring out where they might land.

Many dual-citizenship applicants, like all of those in this story, are seeking it in European Union countries specifically because, as Stoner notes, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, “member states have put out all sorts of affirming statements, saying, you know, ‘We will protect your rights. We have no intention of taking away your right to an abortion or things like marriage.’ ” Plus, citizenship in any E.U. country gives you the right to live and work in any other one. If one nation doesn’t work out, there are others at your immediate disposal. Of course, there’s a glaring irony to the situation: It is the White descendants of European immigrants who have the best shot at escaping the United States via dual citizenship — not the Americans of color who could be most acutely affected by changes such as the ones in the Dobbs decision.

Even before the Dobbs bump, agencies that help dual-citizenship seekers were already seeing higher interest levels than usual. Kelly Cordes, the founder and manager of Irish Citizenship Consultants in Elgin, Ill., has seen interest in Irish dual citizenship spike to what she estimates as “twice or three times” the normal rate this year, after both the Dobbs decision and the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde a month before. That said, Cordes has seen spikes like these around the last two presidential elections, too. “We always joke, if we weren’t watching the news and didn’t know what was happening, we would be alerted to go and figure out what was going on just based on the number of inquiries,” Cordes said.

For Anthony Del Grosso, 28, the Supreme Court’s abortion decision was just one of many reasons he has recently begun the process of obtaining dual citizenship by descent in Italy. He wants to have a family one day without working himself to death just to be able to provide for them. He wants health care that won’t strain his bank account.

Plus, “it just seems to be getting worse politically here. It’s normal to just have mass shootings. And it’s normal to just have, like, rights stripped away from people,” says Del Grosso, an Albuquerque-based assistant location manager for film and TV sets. Over the course of the next few years, he’ll probably spend around $5,000 getting documentation together to prove the line of descent from his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Italy in 1906.

There’s something universal about the desire to solve a problem by simply disengaging, by abandoning the situation entirely. But is there a country on Earth where the populace is plagued by exactly none of the United States’ problems? Virtually no nation has emerged unscathed by the coronavirus; no country has escaped climate change, and all of them have at least a few corruptible politicians. Paige notes that the United Kingdom has a deepening political divide that looks a lot like the United States’. Kirbo acknowledges that Italy’s health-care system has its own problems with inefficiency. Stoner points out that Europe as a whole is struggling with a housing crisis.

“Italy has a variety of problems,” Del Grosso says. “They just got rid of another prime minister. There’s political turmoil. There’s inflation just like here. There’s a drought just like here.”

In other words, the parachute may have a few holes in it. And yet: The people in this story remain undeterred.

In Italy, “they have maternity leave,” Del Grosso says. And even if he worked in a fast-food joint there, he’d be entitled to at least four weeks of paid vacation per year. “I don’t expect to ever find a place where [we] … fix all of the problems and make a humanitarian world. But just being able to say, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got paid vacation, and I have health care, and I only work 30 hours a week, but I can afford a two-bedroom apartment,’ ” Del Grosso says, would make it all worth the trouble.

“The existence of social problems isn’t what makes me feel hopeless, because social problems exist anywhere. It’s the lack of political will, and the lack of concrete material solutions to the problems, that I find so frustrating,” Stoner says. “Seems like the people in power in America are committed to moving backwards. The E.U. is at least committed to moving forward.”

Certainly, the descendants of immigrants suddenly consulting their grade-school genealogy charts in search of an escape route is a weird coda to all those triumphant stories of yore about starting over in America. But desperation is eclipsing the desire to uphold legacies.

“When you’re the child of immigrants, you don’t really think about going back to where your parents came from — because they came here for a better life, is the narrative. But, you know, I’m gay,” says Stoner, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. “I live in one of the states that, realistically, if given the opportunity to do so, would take away my right to marry.”

Paige thinks her great-grandparents might even be proud of her efforts to find a way out. “They came over looking to the future, right? They probably had a similar thing, where they had to break up with their past,” she says. “In that way, it almost feels like the family tradition.”