Young, cultured, and motivated, Jose Leonardo Cabrera Barroso is just the kind of immigrant the government says Germany needs.
Originally from Venezuela, he settled in Germany, learned the language and obtained his German medical license. At the age of 34, he specialized as a trauma surgeon working in a hospital in the northern port city of Hamburg. It took him a full six years – and because of his experience, he was allowed to apply for citizenship sooner than the eight years required for most others.
“For me, this date was essential,” he said at a champagne reception in Hamburg after the citizenship ceremony in February. “After all the work I’ve put in to get here, I finally feel like I can party.”
But if his path to becoming a German citizen wasn’t easy, neither was the effort to streamline the process for others who wish to pursue the same dream.
After months of political wrangling, the government presented a plan this month to make it easier and faster for working migrants to become citizens, and cut the time, for people with special skills like Dr Cabrera Barroso, to as little as three years.
Proponents argue that the changes are urgently needed to balance an aging population and a dearth of skilled and unskilled workers. Given the majority enjoyed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition government in Parliament, the new law is expected to be passed this summer.
But before that, even within the government – and certainly to its conservative opponents – the proposals sparked a fierce debate over a fundamental question: Is Germany a country of immigrants?
The answer is obvious on the ground. Germany is more populous than ever – 1.1 million more people live in the country, now 84.3 million people, at the end of 2022 – thanks to immigration.
One in four Germans has at least one of their grandparents born abroad. More than 18 percent of the people who live in Germany were not born there.
In Frankfurt and a few other major cities, residents with an immigrant history make up the majority. People with non-German names run cities, universities, and hospitals. The German couple who invented the Pfizer Covid vaccine have Turkish roots. Cem Ozdemir, a German-born Green politician whose parents are from Turkey, is one of the most popular ministers in the current government. Two of the three ruling parties are run by men born in Iran.
Many of these changes have only accelerated since reunification 33 years ago, but many Germans still do not recognize their country’s diversity.
“The opposition does not want to accept or acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants. They want to hide the truth from us,” said Bijan Gersaray, who came to Germany from Iran when he was 11 and is now general secretary of the Free Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition. reality”.
Changes to citizenship law are part of a broader set of proposals that will also make it easier for skilled workers to settle in Germany and well-integrated immigrants.
Besides reducing the time an immigrant must live in the country to file an application, the plan would allow people to keep their original citizenship and make language requirements less onerous for older immigrants.
The proposals are the most attractive since 1999, when, for the first time in Germany’s recent history, people who were not born to German parents could obtain German citizenship under certain conditions.
Prior to this, it was virtually impossible to become German without proof of German ancestry, a situation that was particularly precarious for the nearly one million Turkish citizens who began 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 fiercely resisted relaxing citizenship requirements, criticizing it for giving up rights granted to German citizens too easily for people who are not sufficiently integrated.
Those arguments have resonated with some Germans at a time when immigration remains a pillar of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which has surged in opinion polls, pushing the opposition Christian Democrats far right with it.
“Illegal citizenship does not promote integration, but it has the opposite effect and will have a negative impact on illegal immigration,” Alexander Dobrindt, parliamentary leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, told the popular newspaper Bild.
Not all of those who have already gone through a tedious and lengthy process agree to loosen up the requirements either.
“I think you have to make sure you don’t give it away too easily,” said Mohamed Bashir, 34, who came to Germany from Syria eight years ago and was among some 200 migrants who received their citizenship this year in the ornate revival of Hamburg City Council. “I had to fight really hard for that.”
Over months of negotiations, the smallest, most conservative parties in the ruling coalition have fought for changes to ensure that self-sufficient applicants – with few exceptions – did not depend on social security payments.
“If we want society to accept immigration reform, we also have to talk about things like control, regulation and, if necessary, repatriation,” Mr. Ger Saray said, acknowledging the concerns of the opposition. “It is simply part of it.”
However, surveys show that more than two-thirds of Germans believe changes that make immigration easier are necessary to alleviate a pervasive shortage of skilled workers, according to a recent survey. industry; employers, such as the German Federation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises; Economists welcome the changes, seeing them as a way to attract skilled workers.
Petra Bendel, who researches migration and integration at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nurenberg, believes that in addition to attracting new workers, changes are needed to integrate those immigrants already living in Germany.
“The problem is that we exclude too many people who have long been a part of us, but who still do not have full citizenship, and so they are also excluded from full political participation,” she said.
Although it naturalized the fifth-most number of people in the EU in 2020, the latest year for which such figures are available, Germany ranks relatively poorly in naturalizing permanent residents: 19 out of 27 EU member states, and is One place less than Hungary.
“Other European countries naturalize much faster, especially after five years rather than after eight years, which is why we ended up in third place,” Professor Bendel noted.
In the coming weeks, the bill will be submitted to Germany’s 16 states for comment before returning to the Cabinet for approval. The government hopes to bring it to parliament for discussion and a vote before lawmakers’ summer recess in early July, though the vote could be delayed until they meet again in September.
For some, like Bonnie Cheng, 28, a Berlin-based portrait photographer, the changes are welcome, if it’s too late. She had to give up her Hong Kong citizenship when she became German last year.
Ms. Cheng is glad that others will not have to face the same choice. She said that if she ever had any doubts about becoming German, it was when she realized she would be the only one in her family with a different nationality.
She said, “If you want to make people feel included, you shouldn’t tear apart their identities.”