German Plan Would Ease Path to Citizenship, but Not Without a Fight

Young, educated and motivated, José Leonardo Cabrera Barroso is just the kind of immigrant the government says Germany needs.

Originally from Venezuela, he settled into Germany, learned the language and got his German medical license. At 34, he is specializing as a trauma surgeon, working at a hospital in the northern port city of Hamburg. It took him a full six years — and because of his expertise, he was allowed to apply for citizenship sooner than the eight years required for most others.

“For me, this date was a must,” he said at the champagne reception in Hamburg after his citizenship ceremony in February. “After all the work I did to get here, I finally feel like I can celebrate.”

But if his path to becoming a German citizen was not easy, neither has been the effort to simplify that process for others who want to realize the same dream.

After months of political wrangling, the government presented a plan this month to make it easier and faster for employed immigrants to become citizens, shortening the time, for people with special skills like Dr. Cabrera Barroso, to as little as three years.

The changes, supporters argue, are urgently needed to offset an aging population and a dearth of both skilled and unskilled workers. Given the majority that Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition government holds in Parliament, the new law is expected to pass this summer.

But before then, even within the government — and certainly for its conservative opponents — the proposals have set off a wrenching debate over a fundamental question: Is Germany a country of immigrants?

On the ground, the answer is clear. Germany is more populous than ever — an additional 1.1 million people lived in the country, now of 84.3 million people, at the end of 2022 — thanks to migration.

One in four Germans have had at least one of their grandparents born abroad. More than 18 percent of people living in Germany were not born there.

In Frankfurt and a few other major cities, residents with a migration history are the majority. People with non-German sounding names run cities, universities and hospitals. The German couple that invented the Pfizer Covid vaccine have Turkish roots. Cem Ozdemir, a German-born Green politician whose parents came from Turkey, is one of the current government’s most popular minsters. Two of the three governing parties are run by men born in Iran.

Many of those changes have only accelerated since reunification 33 years ago, but many Germans still do not recognize the diversification of their country.

“The opposition does not want to accept or admit that we are a nation of immigrants; they basically want to hide from reality,” said Bijan Djir-Sarai, who came to Germany from Iran when he was 11 and is now the secretary general of the Free Democratic Party, which is part of the governing coalition.

The changes to the citizenship law are part of wider set of proposals that will also make it easier for skilled workers to settle in Germany and for well-integrated immigrants to stay.

Besides reducing the time an immigrant must live in the country to apply, the plan will allow people to keep their original citizenship and make language requirements less onerous for older immigrants.

The proposals are the most sweeping since 1999, when, for the first time in modern German history, people who were not born to German parents could get German citizenship under certain conditions.

Before then, it was virtually impossible to become German without proving German ancestry, a situation that was especially fraught for the nearly one million Turkish citizens who started coming to Germany in the 1960s to help rebuild the economy as “guest workers” and their descendants.

Since the government announced its plans in November, the conservative opposition has staunchly resisted easing citizenship requirements, criticizing them as giving away the rights accorded German citizens too easily to people who are not integrated enough.

Those arguments have resonated with some Germans at a moment when migration remains a fixation of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which has risen in polls, pulling the mainstream opposition Christian Democrats farther right with it.

“Hocking citizenship does not promote integration, but has the opposite effect and will have a knock-on effect on illegal migration,” Alexander Dobrindt, the parliamentary leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, told the mass-market tabloid Bild.

Not all of those who have already gone through the longer, arduous process, agree with lightening the requirements, either.

“I think you have to make sure it’s not given away too easily,” said Mohammed Basheer, 34, who came to Germany from Syria eight years ago and was among the roughly 200 immigrants who received their citizenship this year at the ornate Renaissance-revival City Hall of Hamburg. “I had to fight really hard for it.”

Over the months of negotiations, the smallest and most conservative of the parties in the governing coalition fought for changes to make sure applicants are self-sufficient and — apart from few exceptions — did not rely on social security payments.

“If we want society to accept immigration reform, we also have to talk about things like control, regulation and, if need be, repatriation,” Mr. Djir-Sarai said, acknowledging the opposition’s concerns. “It is simply part of it.”

Still, surveys show that more than two-thirds of Germans believe that changes making immigration easier are needed to alleviate rampant skilled-worker shortages, according to a recent poll. Industry; employers, like the German association of small and medium-size enterprises; and economists welcome the changes, seeing them as a way to attract skilled workers.

Petra Bendel, who researches migration and integration at the Friedrich-Alexander-University in Erlangen-Nurnberg, thinks that in addition to attracting new workers, the changes are crucial for integrating those immigrants already living in Germany.

“The problem is that we exclude a very large number of people who have long been part of us, but who still do not have full citizenship and are therefore also excluded from full political participation,” she said.

Although it naturalized the fifth largest number of people in the European Union in 2020, the most recent year for which such numbers are available, Germany ranks comparatively poorly in naturalizing permanent residents: 19th out of 27 E.U. member states, one spot lower than Hungary.

“Other European countries,” Professor Bendel noted, “naturalize much faster, namely mostly after five years and not after eight years, and that is why we ended up in the bottom third.”

In the coming weeks, the bill will be presented to Germany’s 16 states for comment before returning to the cabinet for approval. The government hopes to get it to Parliament for discussion and a vote before lawmakers break for the summer in early July, though the vote could be delayed until they meet again in September.

For some, like Bonnie Cheng, 28, a portrait photographer in Berlin, the changes are welcome, if too late. She had to give up her Hong Kong citizenship status when she became German last year.

Ms. Cheng is happy that others will not have to face the same choice. If she ever had any doubts about becoming German, she said, it was when she realized she would be the only one in her family with a different citizenship.

“If you want make people to feel integrated,” she said, “you should not tear apart their identities.”

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