German families look to US for asylum

WASHINGTON — The doorbell rang early that morning in 2006, before the three oldest Romeike children had begun their schoolwork at the family’s kitchen table in Bissingen, Germany.

Uwe Romeike peeked through a window and saw two police officers.

Romeike’s heart stopped. He didn’t know what to do. He prayed the officers would go away if he didn’t answer the door. Instead, Romeike said, the officers left a voice message threatening to break in.

Daniel, then 9, Lydia, then 8, and Joshua, then 6, were supposed to be in school, the officers said, and they would go to school that day, even if they had to be transported in the back of a police van.

Soon after, Romeike and his wife, Hannelore, stood on their front porch with their two youngest children and watched the van drive away, their three oldest children in the back.

The family knew that it was illegal to not enroll children in a state-registered school in Germany. But Uwe Romeike never thought it would come to that.

“I felt very helpless,” he said. “My children were crying, the police were shouting.”

Hannelore Romeike was able to pick-up her children from the school where they had been delivered, but the family paid thousands of euros in fines over the next few years, and was never sure whether the police would show up again. In 2008, the family moved to Tennessee and applied for asylum.

A Tennessee immigration judge in January ruled that the Romeike family faced persecution in Germany, and approved the asylum request. But weeks later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement appealed the ruling, arguing that the United States recognizes the right of governments to regulate school attendance. It will be months before the Romeikes know for sure whether they can stay in the United States, said Michael Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents the family.

“Asylum from a western country is very unusual,” Donnelly said. “Germany’s got a pretty decent record on human rights in recent history, and they’re an ally, so this is maybe a little bit embarrassing for them.”

The case is the first of its kind.

Romeike and his wife decided to home-school their children in 2006, after their son suffered at the hands of violent bullies, he said. Their daughter was frightened to attend class after another student brought a knife.

In Germany, Romeike said, home-schoolers are stereotyped as “weird people or religious nuts.” But religion wasn’t a factor when the family first decided to home school. It wasn’t until they were forced to prepare a legal defense of their home schooling that they argued that the practice would allow them to teach the Bible to their children. For his family, Romeike said, home-schooling is a lifestyle that offers children a chance to learn at their own pace, in a calm, loving environment.

Germany is nearly alone in Europe in its stand against home-schooling.

The German government's position is that mandatory school attendance ensures a high standard of learning for all children, said Karl-Matthias Klause, a spokesman with the German embassy in Washington, D.C. Parents in Germany can choose between public and private schools, as long as the school is recognized by the government. The European Court for Human Rights ruled in 2006 that the law is not a human rights violation.

Home-schooling isn’t illegal, Klause said, as long as children attend a state-recognized school during standard school hours. Parents are free to home-school their children in the afternoon and on weekends, he said.

Germany's strict laws requiring all children to attend state-registered schools help ensure each child learns to tolerate and understand others, said Kirsten Verclas of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, D.C.

“During Nazism, there was racism to the extreme,” Verclas said. “The education system and other state systems prevent fringe opinions out there that might negatively affect our state.”

In the U.S., Verclas said, people believe that individual rights should trump the state’s rights. In Germany, she said, it’s the other way around.

Home-schooling is legal in every state in the U.S., but the practice is sometimes challenged. A California judge in 2008 ruled home-schooling to be illegal there. His decision was later reversed. A 2008 federal report estimated that there are 1.5 million home-schoolers in the U.S., and their numbers are growing. Some states require home-schoolers to take standardized tests and receive home visits from state officials, but others don’t regulate home-schooling at all.

For German home-schoolers, the U.S. is a safe haven. The Romeikes joined another German family that was already home schooling in Tennessee. Other families hope to move to the U.S., if the Romeikes' asylum stands. Donnelly said they fear that the German government will extradite them and jail them if they move to another European Union country.

German officials terrorize families that home-school, said Klaus Landahl. He and his wife received a letter from government officials who threatened to imprison them if they didn’t send their kids to school, he said.

Landahl was visiting England in late 2007 to find a new home for his family when his wife received a letter saying that the state had formally taken custody of the Landahl children. His wife, Kathrin, stuffed clothes into a few bags and fled her home with the children. Two days later, she and the children were on a ferry bound for England.

“The government destroys lives and whole families,” Landahl says.

England is not part of an EU agreement that simplifies extradition, Landahl said. Otherwise, he would have looked across the Atlantic Ocean to find safety for his family.

Many German home-schoolers will live in fear until the government changes its policies, said Joerg Grosseluemern, a leader in the fight to legalize the practice.

“We must convince political leaders that home schooling is an option that helps not only the children, but which also is an enrichment for the educational system as a whole,” he said. “But it is very difficult to find political leaders who are willing to talk with us.”