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Germany’s AfD wants to roll back birthright citizenship. The right-wing party has the wrong idea.

- September 26, 2017

On Sunday, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won 12.6 percent of the parliamentary vote. For the first time since World War II, a far-right party has gained enough votes to enter the German Parliament.

As part of its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-European platform, the AfD has argued for the reversal of Germany’s current citizenship law, issued in 2000. Among other things, this law established the right of jus soli, or citizenship at birth, for children born to parents who are permanent residents.

Reversing this legislation is likely to backfire

My recent research has found that the implementation of birthright citizenship in Germany has a significant positive impact on the attitudes and beliefs of the parents of citizen children. These parents are more likely to identify as German, trust others, and be more satisfied with life as a whole.

The official AfD line is that citizenship should only be given once “successful integration and loyalty” have been demonstrated. The birthright policy, they argue, discourages integration. My research suggests that this is not the case. The current legislation encourages the families of citizens to further identify with German society. This coincides with research in other contexts that has found that citizenship encourages integration among citizens themselves.

These findings are based on the different outcomes between parents of children born immediately before and after the law’s implementation. Eligible children born on or after Jan. 1, 2000 automatically became German citizens at birth, while those born before this date did not.

Having a child who is German made parents feel and act more German

Because the law was passed less than nine months before its implementation, parents largely were unable to choose if their child would have automatic citizenship. This as-if random placement creates the ideal situation for robust statistical analysis to compare the attitudes and behaviors of noncitizens who have citizen children, and those who do not.

To look at this issue, I use the SOEP data set, a multiyear representative survey from Germany. I analyzed responses to a wide range of questions to understand the differences between the parents of children born slightly before and slightly after the Jan. 1, 2000 cutoff point.

Here’s what I found: A child’s citizenship caused his or her parents to be much more likely to self-identify as German — and read more German newspapers, rather than newspapers in their native language.

This shift was equivalent to the average difference between surveyed individuals with four years more of education, which researchers argue is an important factor in integration and national identification.

The SOEP surveys also revealed that parents of citizen children in Germany felt more satisfied with their overall standard of living, and were more likely to believe that others could be trusted. Political scientists have observed that these outcomes are especially difficult to achieve in diverse societies, indicating that a child’s citizenship can play a uniquely influential role.

These findings are similar for non-German parents surveyed soon after their child’s birth and those interviewed up to 12 years later. While data constraints hindered subgroup analyses, the effects are consistent for permanent residents of various origins, ages, ethnicities and religions.

Tweaking citizenship policy might seem like a low-cost way for parties in the center to win back voters lost to the AfD. Instead, this research indicates that removing birthright citizenship would further complicate Germany’s long-standing integration challenge.

More inclusive citizenship policy, not less, will encourage greater national identification, not just among children who are potential German citizens, but for their families as well.

Elizabeth Dekeyser is a PhD candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More information on her research can be found here.