African teen in German visa fight

A special commission recommended new laws, more programs for migrants yesterday.

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On the May morning that the police came for him, Yannick Assi was getting ready for school. "It took me by surprise, I wasn't expecting the police," remembers the lanky 16-year-old.

"I was taking a shower, and then the doorbell rang."

Three plainclothes officers were standing outside the family's home in a wealthy Berlin suburb.

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They took the frightened boy to a detention center and told his father, Adiepo Assi, to pack no more than 44 pounds of luggage.

The next day, the authorities planned to deport Yannick to his native Ivory Coast.

Thanks to a judge's last-minute intervention, Yannick was released, but only after Mr. Assi agreed to send the boy back to Africa "voluntarily" at the end of July, once the school year is over.

"Germany doesn't want my child," sighs the exasperated father. "I dream every day that when I come home from work, there's a letter from the authorities saying that my child can stay."

That possibility is highly unlikely. Since last summer, the Ivorian electrical engineer - who has lived legally in Berlin for 15 years and is married to a German - has been fighting a Kafkaesque battle against the authorities.

The Assi family's travails underscore the deep ambivalence in German society toward immigration, perhaps the country's most divisive issue. Although the mainstream political parties have largely agreed that immigration is necessary for Germany to compete in the global economy and to fill a projected future labor shortage, this new openness is accompanied by the old German attitude that foreign workers are merely "guests" here - not potential citizens.

Yesterday, a special commission on immigration presented its recommendations to the government, which include more programs to integrate migrants and the urgent passage of legislation regulating immigration. According to some estimates, Germany needs more than 300,000 immigrants yearly just to maintain its present population.

Family reunification is hotly debated, with some conservatives arguing that only children up to the age of 10 should be allowed to join their parents here. And while Germany has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it gives precedent to its own legislation, which regards foreigners under the age of 16 as minors - not under 18, as in the UN Convention.

In 1999, there were some 33,000 deportations from Germany. No official numbers exist on the deportation of minors, and except for a few high-profile cases, most are not made public.

The deportation of a 14-year-old Turkish youth touched off a national debate two years ago. Although the boy was born in Munich and both his parents live there, a court deemed his long criminal record reason to revoke his residence permit and send him to Turkey, unaccompanied.

In the case of Yannick Assi, a shy teenager who is passionate about soccer and basketball, there is no history of juvenile delinquency, no unfounded asylum claim, or any other grave impropriety - just a father's impatience.

Until last September, Yannick lived with an aunt in Ivory Coast. Relations between the two were deteriorating, however, and Assi, worried that Yannick was hanging out with the wrong crowd, decided to send his son to a French-language high school in Berlin. The father flew to Ivory Coast to apply for his son's visa at the German embassy in Abidjan.

After five weeks with no reply, Assi had to return to work, and his son's new school was about to begin classes. So Assi used his passport, in which Yannick is identified as his child, to return to Germany with his son. Back in Berlin, Assi went to authorities to apply for his son's residence permit. Instead, he was told that Yannick had entered the country illegally and would have to leave within four weeks.

The family's lawyer, Ronald Reimann, doesn't deny that Assi violated German visa regulations. "That wouldn't have been a problem, had they wanted it," he says. Mr. Reimann says there is a loophole even legalistically minded bureaucrats could have accepted: The German Constitution explicitly provides for the "special protection" of the family.

Berlin's Interior Department, which is responsible for Yannick's case, insists that it acted correctly. "If a foreigner comes here to get a residence permit, then he has to start the process in the country of origin," says spokesman Ulrich Romer.

Because of a technicality - Yannick's passport was still at the German Embassy in Abidjan - the boy was allowed to stay until May. Then the police appeared at the Assis' doorstep.

Lawyer Reimann calls the incident a "scandal." Normally sticklers for regulations, the authorities broke their own rules, he says, by trying to deport the boy before the expiration of his temporary-residence papers.

While Mr. Romer implies that Yannick's return to Abidjan is merely the fulfillment of a formality, there is no guarantee he will be granted a visa. The application must be approved by Berlin authorities, peeved by the case's growing publicity.

Assi, a tall, elegant man, says he never before felt racially discriminated against in Germany. But he says his experience with an inflexible bureaucracy has so disappointed him that he is considering withdrawing his recent application for German citizenship.

"I live here. I work here. I don't live off welfare. I pay for his school, his clothes, his food. What does he cost Germany?" he asks. "They're looking for computer experts, for soccer players. Who says he can't be that one day?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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