The Swiss parliament has launched a debate on government proposals to make it easier for foreigners to become Swiss citizens.
They include granting automatic citizenship to foreigners born in Switzerland, as long as one of their parents has spent at least five years in the country and has a valid residency permit.
The procedure for becoming a Swiss citizen would also be made easier for young foreigners who have been to school in Switzerland for at least five years.
The government also wants to streamline the complex procedure between federal, cantonal and local authorities. Its proposals include setting a maximum fee for naturalisations and reducing the length of time a non-Swiss has to spend in the country before applying for a Swiss passport.
It is estimated that up to 10,000 foreigners per year would benefit from the measures.
Concerns from the Right
Opponents in parliament, particularly from the rightwing Swiss People's Party, argue that a more liberal policy would lead to a wave of citizenship applications.
They also say that it would encourage immigration to a country that already has a large number of foreigners - about 20 per cent of the current population.
Luzi Stamm, a member of parliament for the People's Party, believes there is no need to change the current legislation.
"The easier it is to get into the country, the more difficult you have to make it for people to acquire citizenship," Stamm told swissinfo.
However, supporters from centre-left and centre-right parties say Switzerland has one of the most restrictive citizenship laws in Europe. It can take up to 12 years before a foreigner has the right to apply for a Swiss passport.
They also reject claims made by the People's Party that citizenship regulations would lead to bigger problems of integrating foreigners into Swiss society.
They argue that a substantial number of foreign residents are well integrated in society. A quarter of all those defined as foreigners in Switzerland were born in the country.
Rebekka Ehret, a lecturer at the Social Anthropology Department of Basel University, and author of the city of Basel's integration policy, says efforts to ease citizenship regulations are a move in the right direction.
She cautions that giving people their full political rights is not a recipe for successful integration but is at least a step in the right direction.
"It will give people the possibility to act politically," she told swissinfo. "This is always a sign of integration."
"Belonging to a society, though, is more of a private choice, as it is for any Swiss person as well."
Ehret says that integration issues in Switzerland have to be treated on a coordinated federal level across all ministries and all aspects of society.
"We have to stop looking at the issue of integration on a cultural level - using differences as an explanation for problems - and look at society's structure at a deeper level."
Vote in 1994
A previous proposal to ease citizenship requirements for young foreigners was rejected by the Swiss electorate in 1994.
Over the past two years, voters in several towns in central Switzerland have rejected requests for Swiss citizenship by people mainly from the Balkan region. The decisions caused a public outcry and made international headlines.
Parliament will continue its debate later this year, before the Swiss electorate has the final word on the issue.
by Urs Geiser and Jonathan Summerton
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