In limbo: Why Germany's reform of dual citizenship laws can't come soon enough
Having more than one nationality will soon be an option to many more people in Germany under government plans. For those struggling to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles now, the change in law can't come soon enough, writes Caitlin Hardee.
When the new German government's plans were published in November 2021, immigrants in the Bundesrepublik zeroed in on a few choice paragraphs on page 118: The Ampel - or so-called traffic light coalition - had resolved to anchor a universal recognition of multi-nationality in federal citizenship law.
For myself and others, this represents a staggeringly significant change in sentiment. Up until now, Germany has clung to a calcified, fearful avoidance of dual citizenship, often capricious and inequitable in execution.
Expats with strong ties to their homelands found themselves in a dreary limbo, unwilling to renounce their old nationalities and so unable to naturalise, deprived of voting rights, security and true belonging, even after decades of integrated, tax-paying residence in Germany. Many of us had lost hope that a meaningful change would come about in the foreseeable future; the notion of dual nationality remained a wistful dream and a political long shot.
Now it's going to happen. I talked to representatives of all three ruling parties to pin down specifics; while there's no fixed date to pass the new legislation, all assured that it was a priority.
While we wait and hope, for some immigrants, the good news is tinged with bitter memories of prior run-ins with the Byzantine citizenship process, which will continue to flummox and foil our aspirations of integration until the law is changed.
Emily Wachelka, an American living in Munich, married and raising children with a German, knows this frustration well. In the run-up to the election, she spoke with us about her then-ongoing application for citizenship, and her hopes to attain dual through assorted arguments for a hardship-based exemption from renunciation.
By the time the authorities in Munich got around to making a decision in her case, the news had already dropped that federal policy would soon be embracing multi-nationality. Of no consequence, apparently, to local bureaucrats: Her request for leniency was denied, and Wachelka withdrew her naturalisation application, after considerable time and expense. She, like many, remains in limbo for now. Wachelka spoke about her disappointment over the lack of Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture).
"My Sachbearbeiter (advisor) just seemed to want to get me off his back. There was no offer of putting my application on hold, no willingness to try and find a way to make this happen even when it's so clear that I'm here for life, my kids have dual citizenship, and there is no way I can give up my US citizenship," she said.
None of Wachelka's arguments for an exemption could convince the Munich office: Her family ties to the United States, future inheritance issues, or the renunciation fee exceeding her monthly individual income. "Bavaria has decided to include spousal income in deciding if this exception applies," she said.
Not even the closed-for-business sign of the US embassy responsible for renunciations, which has stopped offering this service in Germany throughout the pandemic and has no timeline on when it may resume, was enough to tip the scales. "The response was that my application would be approved - with the clause that as soon as renouncements started up, I would need to renounce or face a fee," fumed Wachelka.
Wachelka was not told how much this fee would be, or whether it would still apply if the federal law on dual citizenship had changed by the time the embassy resumed denaturalising citizens. "It's all quite inhumane and clearly designed to discourage citizenship," she concluded.
Wait... or tackle the paperwork now?
And me? Your author has been muddling through the citizenship process for the better part of a year now, having obtained permanent residency last January. In truth, my heart's only half in it - I desperately want to keep my American citizenship as well as become German. But at every step I don't know whether it's better to push ahead at full tilt and see if my own cobbled-together mess of arguments is enough, pray my advisor in Berlin is having a good day, hope authorities can read the writing on the wall - or whether it would be better, cheaper, easier, less infuriating, to throw the brakes on and wait for the law to change.
Just a few anecdotes from the delightful journey so far: I recently paid a couple hundred euros to a certified translator for an approved rehash of my birth certificate, college transcript and some random printouts about my parents' property in the United States. I had to pay for this, despite being a professional translator myself, because I'm not certified, which of course the Bezirksamt requires for the translations they demand of incredibly basic English documents.
The transcript is needed, along with an open-ended freelance translation contract I have with a German chamber of commerce, and course certificates from my time at a German university, and whatever other German documents I can find, to support my assertion that I (a German studies major, cum laude, working in German-language office environments for the better part of a decade) am sufficiently fluent to avoid scheduling, sitting and paying for an additional language test. I discussed this course of documentation on the phone during my Erstberatung (initial consultation) an extensive phone call in, dare I say, pretty spectacular German. But how can a bureaucrat know if I can actually speak the damn language, without paperwork?
READ ALSO: How I got German citizenship
The page on my parents' house is to support one of many arguments I would advance for potential economic hardship, in this case regarding long-term care versus relative care as relating to potentially selling the property and losing inheritance. Probably useless. I considered getting a photography license in Washington state, which you don't need to do photo work there, just so I could have something else to pay to have translated and show threatened revenue - photography legitimately being another of my side hustles - but I had to draw the line somewhere.
So now I'm sitting on a sheaf of expensive documents, but without extra certified copies, so I can either go all-in right now on this attempt, get the rest of my paperwork together, pay another couple of hundred euros up-front for the Amt to consider my case, most likely get denied, and then receive half of the fee and hopefully my documents back to reuse in future - or I can wait.
Germany, you make me tired.
'I deserve to be recognised as the German citizen I am'
I'm not the only one: Wachelka is pretty burned out on the whole adventure as well. She tries to think about how it will feel, someday when the law is changed, to finally be recognised as a citizen of two countries, but can't quite picture it.
"It's hard for me to envision this moment, and honestly, thinking about it makes me quite emotional," she said. "I want very much to become a German citizen. I would like to have a German passport like the rest of my family, and of course most of all I would like to have a voice, in local, regional and national elections." Wachelka's ties to her chosen home are beyond reproach: "I live here, my family is here, my kids are dual citizens. I speak the language fluently, I studied here, I pay taxes, and I do my very best to be involved in my community."
Wachelka's simple desire is that of so many who share her position, trapped in-between and disenfranchised: "I deserve to be recognised as the citizen that I am, in all ways except officially."
The intentions of the new government represent the realisation of that dream - and the new law can't come soon enough.
Keep an eye on thelocal.de for further articles on how foreigners are affected by these planned changes, and your thoughts on relaxing citizenship laws.