Germany's Cold Shoulder | The Nation


Germany's Cold Shoulder

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

"Why not go to Bavaria?" ask the billboards, emblazoned with color photos of fairy-tale castles, Oktoberfest and BMWs. Posted along Bangalore's rickshaw-choked streets, the tidy European images are more surreal than alluring. But the claims offered by go-to-bavaria.com, an agency that promotes high-tech investment in Germany's southern powerhouse and the creator of the ads, are impressive: Bavaria is the second-largest IT region in Europe and fourth-largest in the world; almost a third of Germany's computer manufacturing jobs are based in Bavaria; the list goes on. Not only that, but the region is desperate for skilled high-tech workers and will gladly take them from India or anywhere else.

About the Author

Alisa Roth
Alisa Roth is a reporter based in Berlin.

So why not go to Bavaria? Because, as the shocking results of France's first-round elections so forcefully demonstrated, the immigration issue in Europe is a highly emotional one. Not only is Bavaria notoriously anti-immigration, but like Jean-Marie Le Pen, its ultraconservative governor-turned-chancellor-candidate has made immigration control the central focus of next September's national elections. Bavaria represents the crux of Germany's current dilemma: The past three years saw promising moves toward resolving the country's immigration problems, but in the past six months security concerns and a deepening economic crisis have radically changed people's thinking on the issue. Even as ad campaigns aim to lure workers from thousands of miles away, voices from across the political spectrum are urging that foreigners be viewed with a new suspicion. It is these contradictions that shaped the debate over Germany's first immigration law, which made it through Parliament this spring by one controversial vote.

The slim margin was not surprising. Postwar Germany has never allowed for an official, permanent immigrant population, and it was not so long ago that Helmut Kohl declared that Germany was "not a nation of immigrants." Nearly 10 percent of the population are foreigners, but none were invited as permanent, or even long-term, residents. Most are guest-workers imported from Southern Europe to fuel the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. They were supposed to go home when the job was done. Newer immigrants are mostly family members allowed to join them, never selected as future Germans. The other large group is humanitarian immigrants: asylum recipients, asylum seekers and refugees. They have been tolerated because Germany's basic law guarantees protection, not because they are wanted.

When the Social Democrats took over in 1998, the government made some impressive changes. A new citizenship law passed three years ago meant that having German blood was no longer the only way to get citizenship. The green card program, started the following summer, was the first attempt in nearly thirty years to import a foreign labor force (although like the guest-worker program before, it also assumes that the workers will eventually go home). Discussion about the new law to allow for long-term and permanent immigration to Germany began only in the fall of 2000.

After September 11, though, the mood changed dramatically. The discovery that several hijackers had spent time in Germany over the past few years produced an outright panic. Two sets of security laws, passed in response to the attacks, include profiling and tracking measures that severely limit foreigners' rights. Calling for a review of the security risks associated with foreigners, the government decided to postpone discussion of the immigration law in Parliament. With federal elections looming in September, the delay gave the opposition Christian Democrats the opening they needed to make immigration a campaign issue.

For the ruling Social Democrats, it was a major victory to get the law passed this term. But as lawmakers struggled to reach a compromise, the law grew more restrictive. Children over the age of 12 wishing to join their parents here must now be able to prove that they speak fluent German, for example, up from an earlier proposal of 18. Even the unwieldy title, "Law to Control and Limit Immigration and on the Regulation of Stay and Integration of Foreigners," suggests the legislation is more about keeping people out than about inviting them in. "From a demographic perspective, this is catastrophic," said Dieter Oberndörfer, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Freiburg and the head of Germany's Migration Council. "We need immigrants who will stay and identify with Germany as their country, [people who will say] 'I want to live here, my children will live here, we will form a part of the nation.'"

The new immigration law was initially intended to encourage that kind of migration. First put forward by Interior Minister Otto Schily, a Social Democrat who in his youth served as defense lawyer for the radical Red Army Faction, it calls for a point system, modeled after Canada's, to determine who should be admitted. Points will be given for desirable traits like German language skills or advanced degrees; the government will finance mandatory integration classes to help newcomers learn the language and the customs. Despite criticisms from both sides, most agreed that the new law was at least a first step.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.