Germany redefining Germans

Conservatives try to block plan that would give citizenship toup to 3 million foreigners.

As Germany prepares to overhaul its antiquated citizenship laws for the first time in nearly a century, battle lines are being drawn between those who want to open the society and those who want to preserve the largely Teutonic status quo.

Germany, one of the last major European nations to bestow automatic citizenship solely along racial bloodlines, has never viewed itself as a multicultural society.

Although historically Germany has absorbed large numbers of immigrants, they have generally been pressured to assimilate.

But that could all change as the new center-left government under Chancellor Gerhard Schrder moves to reform the 1913 citizenship law, making good on a campaign pledge.

The prospect that as many as 3 million of Germany's 7.7 million resident foreigners might soon become citizens, however, has prompted conservative parties to launch a campaign to block the reform.

Conservatives warn that the country will be so overrun by foreigners that the core of German identity is in danger.

At the center of the dispute is Germany's largest minority, about 2 million Turks. Most came to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s as "guest workers" who were supposed to return home. Most stayed, however, and brought their families to join them. The Turkish government says about 10 percent of them have become German citizens.

Many Germans consider the largely Muslim Turkish community, together with several hundred thousand Muslim refugees from Bosnia, a threat to the country's focus on Christian values. They also complain that Turks are unwilling to integrate, overlooking the fact that as low-income workers who are politically disenfranchised, they have had little chance to achieve a more permanent status in German society.

The proposed legislation will grant automatic citizenship to the second generation born in Germany, shorten residency requirements for citizenship, and allow dual nationality. The measure needs only a simple majority to pass parliament. But continuing protests from opposition parties could persuade the government to weaken the reforms.

At a news conference in Bonn Jan. 6, German Interior Minister Otto Schily did not announce details of the new legislation as expected. Instead, he said further talks between the coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Greens, were necessary before the new law can be unveiled this week.

An announcement is expected Wednesday.

Famous cases

The issue of foreigners' rights drew widespread attention last year, when authorities in the conservative southern state of Bavaria deported to Turkey a 14-year-old convicted of a variety of juvenile offenses. The German-born boy speaks little Turkish and has only distant relatives in Turkey.

In the town of Sulzbach, close to Frankfurt, authorities tried to deport an Iranian couple last fall who have lived in Germany for more than 20 years. Officials insisted their $3,200 monthly income was $41 a month less than what was needed to support their family. They were allowed to stay after a local chapter of the Green party pledged to make up the difference.

Muharrem Soylu, treasurer of the Turkish-Islamic Union in Frankfurt, says there is considerable discrimination against Turks living in Germany. "If we apply for a job or try to rent an apartment, we're the last on the list, after the Germans and European Union nationals." Mr. Soylu says the new law will not wipe out discrimination, but it will strengthen civil and political rights for the Turkish community. He hopes as increasing numbers of Turks and other foreigners acquire German citizenship they will become more involved in the political process.

Soylu says he does not understand how Germany can be part of the European Union but continue to maintain more restrictive citizenship laws than most other EU countries. "If this is going to be an integrated Europe, we must have a new law," he says.

Klaus Bade, professor of modern history at the University of Osnabrueck, says studies of classic immigrant societies like the US and Canada "teach us that citizenship is an important step toward integration, but the process itself takes a lifetime."

Mr. Bade criticizes the new government for its refusal to create new immigration laws together with the change in citizenship laws. "This is a serious problem. Easing citizenship laws means family members will have more rights to move to Germany and there will be no law to regulate this group of immigrants."

Currently, only people of ethnic German heritage have a right to immigrate to Germany. Those who are granted political asylum, as well as foreigners who come to Germany to join family members or for job purposes, can apply for citizenship after 15 years of residency. The new law will reduce this requirement to eight years.

Firm opposition

The Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) is leading the battle against the citizenship reforms, including a proposed petition drive along with the major conservative opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union.

CSU parliamentary delegate Wolfgang Zeitlmann claimed the reform threatens "the foundation of identity for the German nation."

One reason for the stubborn opposition from conservative parties may be concerns about the political inclinations of the soon-to-be citizens. Surveys show that an overwhelming number, at least of the Turkish minority, support the ruling center-left coalition.

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