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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Citizenship Begins at Home: How Families Shape Immigrant Incorporation

  • Author(s): Street, Alexander Logan Spencer
  • Advisor(s): Lee, Taeku
  • Levy, Jonah
  • et al.

German citizenship law was reformed in the year 2000 in an attempt to incorporate millions of long-term foreign residents. Yet rather than increasing, the numbers applying for German citizenship have been falling ever since the reform. This dissertation offers an explanation of this puzzling development. In so doing it suggests a new answer to the question of why some foreign residents take the citizenship of their country of residence, while others do not.

I argue that the decision to apply for citizenship is typically made along with other family members. In many cases, applying for citizenship together with others in the family allows the benefits of acquiring citizenship to be multiplied and the costs to be split. The benefits of citizenship include increased security, the right to political participation, easier travel and full access to the labor market. Foreign residents place greater value on many of these benefits if they are shared with others in the family. Parents are especially likely to apply if they can thereby acquire citizenship for their children. The financial, cognitive and social costs of changing citizenship can also be reduced by spreading them across the family.

Although the German reform of 2000 eased key criteria for becoming a citizen, it decreased the numbers applying together with other family members. The country introduced birthright citizenship for children whose parents had lived in the country for a number of years, but this has the effect of removing a key reason for many parents to apply for citizenship. The reform of 2000 also brought new tests of individual integration, especially language skills. The focus on the individual is having perverse collective effects. Although most foreign residents satisfy the criteria, many live with someone who doesn't, and the prospect of leaving this person out can discourage the entire family from applying.

The evidence for the argument advanced in this dissertation is drawn from over 100 in-depth interviews as well as statistical analysis of census data. The dissertation makes a novel methodological contribution by using information on other household members to study the dynamics of the decision over citizenship. This reveals not only that citizenship status is clustered by household, but also that people living together commonly apply for citizenship at the same time.

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