Germany’s Cold Shoulder

Germany’s Cold Shoulder

Immigrant workers fuel the ecomony, but still they’re treated with suspicion.


“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, 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.

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.

But Schily is no longer the revolutionary he once was. Many say that the two tough security laws he pushed through after the attacks have taken the country even further away from becoming a real nation of immigrants. Tucked in among practical measures like the increased use of air marshals is a law that allows states to use a computer-aided profiling technique to seek out “sleeper” terrorists, searching databases for people with pertinent characteristics; one characteristic used in recent months is a Middle Eastern background. (Following complaints by residents of Middle Eastern backgrounds, two states, Hesse and Berlin, recently ruled computer-aided profiling unconstitutional.)

Middle Easterners aren’t the only ones being watched, though. For several years, asylum-seekers applying for refuge in the EU have been required to give fingerprints, ostensibly to make sure they do not apply in two countries at once. The new law makes those fingerprint files accessible to European authorities investigating terrorism, organized crime and other cross-border security or legal concerns. Fingerprints may also be required on visa applications for travel to Germany. The information on all applications is stored in the “foreigners register,” a database of resident foreigners that can be searched by authorities during criminal investigations. And the data in those files will now be saved for years after a foreigner gains German citizenship, meaning that naturalized Germans are held to different standards than born Germans. “The hope was that the immigration law would be a new zeitgeist,” said Bernd Mesovic, a legal adviser at Pro Asyl, an advocacy group for asylum-seekers. Instead, “we came full circle, back to the old spirit of the presence of foreigners as a security risk.”

Oberndörfer calls the government response irrational. “That [Mohammed] Atta studied in Germany, spoke German well, and another [hijacker] worked here are being used to corroborate fear of foreigners,” Oberndörfer said. “I don’t think these measures will really be effective to catch terrorists. These people will enter Germany disguised.” Instead, he worries, “foreigners in Germany will feel less liked than before.” With Germany already competing with the rest of Europe, North America and Australia for the world’s best workers, anything that makes Germany less attractive to immigrants could have serious implications.

At the same time, even leaving aside post-September 11 xenophobia, large-scale immigration is a hard sell with the economy at a virtual standstill and unemployment at 10 percent and rising. Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria’s current governor and the Christian Democrats’ choice for chancellor in next September’s elections, has jumped on Germany’s economic problems as a safe and effective way of opposing further immigration. “With 4.3 million unemployed, we can’t have more foreign workers coming to Germany,” he said in a recent speech, adding that it would be “madness” to bring in more foreigners right now.

But unemployment is not as simple as it first appears. Several regions, including Stoiber’s beloved Bavaria, are booming, and are in dire need of both high- and low-skilled workers. In April, unemployment was as low as 5.8 percent. National unemployment figures are pushed higher by extreme unemployment in the former east, as high as 25 percent in some parts. (A recently uncovered scandal in the national labor office also means that the number of unemployed people may well be much higher than the country had been led to believe.)

Some on the right, including Herwig Birg, chair of the demography department at the University of Bielefeld, head of the conservative Association of German Demographers and an adviser to the Christian Democrats on immigration, propose using unemployed workers from the former east to feed the demand for labor in boom areas. Yet with many of those people nearing retirement age, what they need are not jobs but people to support them in their old age. Birg denies that the country’s demographic problems are as serious as other experts claim, charging that the real reason the government is advocating immigration is that they “are convinced that it would be better for Germany to have as many immigrants as possible because [they believe] Germans are inferior to immigrants.” Birg recommends solving Germany’s demographic problems by increasing the number of births among German women. Raising the birth rate from its current 1.4 babies per woman to France’s level of 1.6, he said, would soon make up for the missing people. Freiburg’s Oberndörfer calls such claims preposterous. The dearth of births, he points out, began developing more than a generation ago, and the current demographic situation is so dire that women who are now of child-bearing age would have to give birth to eight children apiece to make up the deficit. (Not to mention that France, like the rest of Europe, is facing an impending demographic crisis.)

In some ways, though, all this talk is moot. Walk around any big German city, and it is hard to deny that Germany is already, de facto, a nation of immigrants. There are head scarves of every shape and design. Alongside the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, kiosks sell Russian magazines and Vietnamese newspapers. Last year the conservative German daily Die Welt declared the Turkish döner kebab (a gyrolike sandwich) a German national food. But that foreigners live here does not necessarily mean they feel like they belong. For young immigrants, becoming German may be as much about the privileges it affords as about real ties to the country, says Cem Özdemir, a Green Party representative in the lower house of Parliament. Born in southwestern Germany to Turkish guest-worker parents, Özdemir has not only lived the immigrant experience but has made a career representing it in government. “It is very hard to explain to young immigrants living in Germany that it is worth it to become a German citizen,” he said. “It is more or less a pragmatic thing: It is easier to move with a German passport than with a Turkish passport. But it is not a thing that is coming from the heart.”

What Germany needs, he says, is some kind of symbol–he points to the multi-ethnic French national soccer team as an example–to help both sides understand that this is a multicultural society. Even after almost eight years in Parliament, Özdemir says, he still gets regular phone calls and letters asking why he doesn’t go serve the country he came from. “What do you mean?” he asks. “I was born in Germany. Do you want me to go back to the country where my parents were born? That is not my country. And that is something that needs to be understood by Germans and non-Germans.”

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