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Citizenship Reform Has Lost Its Punch

Chancellor's much-trumpeted legislation was watered down on its way to becoming law--and now few immigrants are interested.


BERLIN — A 50-year-old lawyer exiled from Iran and the newborn daughter of Turkish immigrants have something unusual in common: Both rushed to take advantage of an eased citizenship law that took effect New Year's Day but that has failed to impress many other potential Germans.

Behjat Moaali, a human rights lawyer in Kiel, turned in her papers months ahead to become the first naturalized citizen under the new rules that could put German passports in the hands of half this country's 7.3 million foreign-born residents.

Baby Seyma Kurt was driven more by a biological than political imperative in becoming the first non-German baby to qualify for citizenship: She was simply the first born to eligible foreign parents in the new year.

The citizenship reform, which was a much-trumpeted priority of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a year ago, was so watered down by conservative challenges in the months after its drafting that the attractions of belonging to Europe's most powerful country were lost on many who now qualify. Local offices processing passport applications report little more than a blip on the scale of interest.

"There is nothing reformed about this law. In fact, the situation for Turks is worsened," complained Hakki Keskin, a Hamburg professor who chairs the Turkish Community in Germany, a political action group. "For 20 years we've been fighting for this, and what we ended up with is terribly disappointing."

The new law, like the old, prohibits dual citizenship for naturalized Germans. It requires those born since the first of this year to choose, by age 23, between their German passports and those of their parents' nationality.

What makes the new law more prohibitive, Keskin said, is a provision calling for revocation of German citizenship for anyone seeking restoration of his or her passport after naturalization here. Previously, he said, Turkey's recognition of dual nationality allowed its citizens to quietly recover passports for their native land.

Turks form the largest foreign community in Germany, with 2.3 million people. Many have lived here longer than the 15 years previously required for citizenship but have refused to apply because renouncing their Turkish nationality would mean losing property and inheritance rights in their homeland.

Dual citizenship would have been recognized under the reform drafted by Schroeder's coalition only days after it took power in 1998, ending 16 years of conservative rule under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

For centuries, citizenship had been limited to people of German heritage, and obstacles to naturalization for nearly 10% of Germany's 82 million residents have been blamed for fostering anti-foreigner violence here, especially in the eastern states that suffer high unemployment.

Schroeder's coalition preached ethnic harmony at the onset, but it was deterred from broader citizenship reform when Kohl's Christian Democratic Union won a state election in Hesse last February after campaigning on an anti-foreigner message. The victory cost Schroeder control of the upper house of Parliament and the ability to push through legislation.

Stripped of its dual-citizenship provision and burdened with a language proficiency requirement, the revised bill approved in March left only two improvements: automatic citizenship for children born to a foreign parent living in Germany eight years or longer and a reduction of the residency requirement for naturalization from 15 years to eight.

Many older foreigners, especially women from conservative cultures, are unlikely to pass the German proficiency test. It demands a command of written as well as spoken language, and many learned their German without formal instruction, said Eren Uensal, spokeswoman for the Turkish Assn. of Berlin and Brandenburg.

Applications for citizenship are up noticeably this week only in Bavaria, where the state government made a concerted effort to inform foreign communities about the benefits. Even there, a fourfold increase in visits to the registries disappeared after the first two days, reported Wolfgang Suckow of the Munich office.

The only "rush" on German passports is likely to be from an estimated 100,000 newborns expected this year who, like the Kurt baby, automatically qualify. Unlike other naturalized citizens, the newborns can retain the right to dual citizenship until 23--when the benefits of choosing Germany may be more apparent.

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