Portuguese citizenship for descendants of Sephardi Jews

Portugal’s Law of Return

 (photo credit: SHIRI DECKER)
(photo credit: SHIRI DECKER)
The law and its implications

Passed in 2015, Portugal’s Law of Return makes it possible for the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Jews across the globe to obtain Portuguese citizenship. The law was enacted to correct the expulsion that Sephardi Jews were subjected to in 1492 and 1496 at the hands of the Catholic monarchy. More than 500 years after these events, the Law of Return grants the descendants the right to receive a Portuguese passport. 

Over the past months, following reports that the Portuguese government was planning to tighten the restrictions on eligibility, Portugal’s Law of Return has been the subject of confusion, numerous articles, and media attention. The proposed changes to the law would mean that only people who had lived in Portugal for two years would be eligible for citizenship, drastically reducing the number of people who could apply. Fortunately for those interested in applying, these changes have recently been rejected by the ruling Socialist party in Portugal; therefore, these restrictions are not applicable at present.

Requirements: How do Sephardi descendants receive Portuguese citizenship?

For those who choose to apply for Portuguese citizenship, there are a number of  requirements with which they must comply. Applicants must demonstrate family ties to the Sephardi Jewish community, as seen from their family names, language, traditions, and ancestry. This can be difficult to navigate after so many years since the Sephardi Jewish community had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, but there are documents that can prove the connection.

For example, a written certificate from a recognized Sephardi community in Portugal is crucial for the process. The Portuguese law must recognize the approval of the Jewish community of Lisbon and Porto. Therefore, a certificate confirming that the applicant has family ties with the Sephardi community is considered proof of Sephardi lineage.

In cases in which it is difficult to prove family lineage, it is possible to use the assistance of a genealogist who will research the applicant’s family tree, searching for evidence and documents that show that the applicant has family connections with the Sephardi community. Examples of such documents are a ketuba, a bar mitzva certificate, a will, a property deed, a family lineage record, birth and death certificates, a cemetery record, a circumcision record, and synagogue membership records.

It is important to note that an applicant is not required to demonstrate that he or she is a practicing Jew or and may even not be considered Jewish at all today. In order to be eligible for Portuguese citizenship, all that is required is to prove a family connection to the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish expulsion.

Step One: Approval of the Sephardi community in Portugal

Following the submission of documents certifying Sephardi ancestry, the applicant must receive a letter of recommendation from one of the accredited Portuguese Jewish communities. This is conducted through a series of official documents that the candidate must provide, such as a family tree that traces the lineage of family members. In many cases, presenting a genealogical report to the authorities can be a deciding factor in obtaining citizenship. The application also includes a criminal check to ensure that the applicant was never convicted of any serious crimes.

Step Two: Approval of citizenship by Portuguese authorities

Upon completion of a recommendation from one of the accredited Portuguese Jewish communities, the applicant must send his/her request, along with the necessary documentation, to the Ministry of the Interior in Portugal. These documents include a birth certificate, a copy of a valid passport, and a criminal background check. The documents must be translated, notarized, and sealed with an apostille (validation stamp). 

After the application is processed by the relevant authorities, a formal document from the Portuguese authorities is given to the applicant. This document is seen as the applicant’s Portuguese birth certificate, bearing a new identification number from the Ministry of the Interior. Once the applicant has received the document, he/she is eligible for a Portuguese ID card, which is necessary when requesting a Portuguese passport.

How long does it take to obtain a Portuguese passport?

While times vary based on the speed of obtaining and processing the necessary documents, the entire process typically takes between one and two years. Conveniently, throughout the entire process of applying for Portuguese citizenship, the applicant is not required to be in Portugal at all.

Advantages of having a Portuguese passport

A Portuguese passport is highly coveted because of the benefits it provides to its holder.  As members of the European Union and of the European Single Market, Portuguese passport holders have a number of valuable economic, social, and religious rights. Portuguese passport holders can own property in Europe, study in any of the universities, as well as the freedom to travel across the continent without visas. Moreover, citizens of the EU are legally entitled to live, seek employment, and work in any of the EU member states.

(photo credit: SHIRI DECKER)
Attempting to obtain an employee-sponsored visa if one does not have EU citizenship can be expensive and time-consuming. With a Portuguese passport, one does not have to obtain complicated permits or visas. Most importantly, the European Union offers a high quality of life, international career development opportunities, and comprehensive civil liberties.

Does the coronavirus pandemic affect the process of obtaining a Portuguese passport?

As the global COVID-19 pandemic surges both domestically and internationally, it has never been more important to be aware of case numbers. The situation in Portugal had been relatively steady until the past few weeks, when infections have spiked to more than 1,000 new cases a day.

That being said, the process of applying and receiving Portuguese citizenship takes between a year and a half to two years. It is difficult to predict when the situation will return to a semblance of normalcy, but it is hoped that by then the virus will be under control.

Michael Decker of the Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh law firm specializes in immigration law. He says, “If you are the descendant of a Portuguese Jew, now is the time to submit your application. We would be glad to assist you through the process of applying for Portuguese citizenship or answer any questions you may have regarding the issue.”

Assisted in preparing this article: Sasha Kishko and Mati Gordon