With a confusing and often unwelcoming bureaucracy standing in the way, fewer and fewer immigrants in German are choosing to naturalize as German citizens. Hamburg hopes to change that with "naturalization pilots."
German bureaucracy can make naturalization look daunting
In a simple, unadorned house in the Altona neighborhood of Hamburg, the local Turkish community organization has a new roommate. A team of volunteers recruited by the city government has recently started collaborating with the Turkish group to encourage and assist immigrants in applying for German citizenship.
Jardena Kifle, a 32-year-old woman born in Eritrea, is one of 30 so-called "naturalization pilots." She works as a manager for cultural projects and events in the area, and the mediation skills she uses on the job have helped her in her volunteer work as well.
Jardena Kifle naturalized as German 12 years ago
Sitting next to Kifle is Joel Atakora, a 35-year-old interpreter from Togo who has lived in Germany for 10 years. He made the decision to apply for German citizenship a year ago, but he has since become frustrated with bureaucracy.
"I haven't gotten any response from the authorities yet, I just don't understand," he complained. Atakora's German is good, so he has taken it on himself to call up the naturalization offices to ask about his applications status. But every time he has either failed to reach the right people or been ignored.
Such problems are not at all uncommon, said Kifle. Sometimes she resorts to calling up the naturalization offices herself to ask about her clients' applications.
But at the same time she notices that many immigrants know very little about the prerequisites for naturalization. She has a card in her stack of papers with a handy list of legal requirements: "For a German passport you need to have lived in Germany for at least eight years, you need a permanent residency permit and good knowledge of the German language."
Kifle helps with both paperwork and communication with the authorities
Kifle took German citizenship 12 years ago, so she said she can empathize with the mistrust that many immigrants feel toward the German authorities.
"It's just this abrasive tone that they get, this preoccupation with having all the right papers and all the right forms being correctly filled out," she said. "And on top of that, the comparable authorities in many countries where the immigrants come from have an extreme amount of power."
Thus many foreigners in Germany fear repression if they react unkindly to the behavior of German civil servants, Kifle said.
Between 2000 and 2007, a yearly average of about 140,000 people naturalized as German citizens. By 2009 the number dropped to 96,000 - most of them from Turkey, followed by Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. But all together there seems to be a drop in interest in German citizenship.
The government in the city-state of Hamburg is working to change that, hoping that a German passport will help people identify more closely and with the city and feel a greater interest in its success.
German cities and states are hoping to win immigrants over
Its citizenship campaign has recruited several prominent immigrants, and it hopes the naturalization pilots can help as well. In addition to helping navigate the application process, they also function as effective advertisers for German citizenship. Kifle doesn't hesitate to give her endorsement.
"As a German I can vote, travel and work," she said. "A German passport opens doors."
Hüseyin Yilmaz, an employee at the neighboring Turkish organization that runs the pilots' training program, offered another perspective: "The more immigrants who get German passports, the greater their economic and political influence."
Author: Kathrin Erdmann / acb
Editor: Rob Turner