Update Appended: March 1, 2010
The Romeikes are not your typical asylum seekers. They did not come to the U.S. to flee war or despotism in their native land. No, these music teachers left Germany because they didn't like what their children were learning in public school and because homeschooling is illegal there.
"It's our fundamental right to decide how we want to teach our children," says Uwe Romeike, an Evangelical Christian and a concert pianist who sold his treasured Steinway to help pay for the move.
Romeike decided to uproot his family in 2008 after he and his wife had accrued about $10,000 in fines for homeschooling their three oldest children and police had turned up at their doorstep and escorted them to school. "My kids were crying, but nobody seemed to care," Romeike says of the incident.
So why did he seek asylum in the U.S. rather than relocate to nearby Austria or another European country that allows homeschooling? Romeike's wife Hannelore tells TIME the family was contacted by the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which suggested they go to the U.S. and settle in Morristown, Tenn. The nonprofit organization, which defends the rights of the U.S. homeschooling community with its estimated 2 million children, or about 4% of the total school-age population is expanding its overseas outreach. And on Jan. 26, the HSLDA helped the Romeikes become the first people granted asylum in the U.S. because they were persecuted for homeschooling.
The ruling is tricky politically for Washington and its allies in Europe, where several countries including Spain and the Netherlands allow homeschooling only under exceptional circumstances, such as when a child is extremely ill. That helps explain why in late February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement formally appealed the Romeike ruling, which was issued by an immigration judge in Memphis, Tenn. His unprecedented decision has raised concerns that the already heavily backlogged immigration courts will be flooded with asylum petitions from homeschoolers in countries typically regarded as having nonrepressive governments.
"It's very unusual for people from Western countries to be granted asylum in the U.S.," says David Piver, an immigration attorney with offices in a Philadelphia suburb and Flagstaff, Ariz. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, only five Germans received asylum in the U.S. (The Justice Department declined to comment on specific cases.) Piver, who is not involved in the Romeike case, predicted the U.S. government would appeal the decision "so as not to offend a close ally."
Successful asylum petitions typically involve applicants whose situations are more dire, such as women who were forced to undergo abortions or genital mutilation and men whose lives were threatened because they are homosexuals or political dissidents. But Piver believes the Memphis judge was right to grant the Romeikes asylum, since the law covers social groups with "a well-founded fear of persecution" in their home country.
In Germany, mandatory school attendance dates back to 1717, when it was introduced in Prussia, and the policy has traditionally been viewed as a social good. "This law protects children," says Josef Kraus, president of the German Teachers' Association. The European Court of Human Rights agrees with him. In 2006, the court threw out a homeschooling family's case when it deemed Germany's compulsory-schooling law as compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty drafted in 1950. Given this backdrop, it's little wonder the Romeikes came up against a wall of opposition when they tried to talk to their school principal about the merits of homeschooling.