Europe Deals With Immigration

Germany: History's Long Shadow
Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Oct. 13 2008 1:20 PM

Europe Deals With Immigration

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BERLIN, Germany—"Turks are nice!" declared posters plastered all over the Berlin subways during the 1980s. There are no touchy-feely directives on the walls today, but political correctness is still pervasive here. The Holocaust casts a long shadow in this country, and part of the atonement is an unspoken rule against bashing the country's 7.8 million residents of foreign descent.

Hesse state Premier Ronald Koch pushed the boundaries a little too far when he ran for re-election at the end of January 2008. When two young toughs from Greece and Turkey viciously attacked a pensioner on the Munich subway in December 2007, Koch railed against "criminal young foreigners" on the campaign trail. That rallying cry probably wouldn't have doomed his chances in the Netherlands or Austria, two countries with an immigrant population that looks pretty similar to Germany's. In the economic boom years of the 1960s and early '70s, the three European nations imported "guest workers." While the expectation was that these migrants would eventually return home, many remained. These workers and their children and grandchildren, however, have not had an easy time integrating into their adopted countries.

In places like Rotterdam and Vienna, politicians who advocate cracking down on immigrants often perform well at the polls. Koch's rabble-rousing, in contrast, helped kill what had been a hefty lead. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jürgen Falter, a professor of political science at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, chalked up the loss to "the mortgage of National Socialism."

In late 2007 and early 2008, I traveled around Europe studying how various countries deal with immigration. As in the United States, anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in the Continent (and is likely to intensify as countries' economies contract). But there is wide variation within that broader unease with foreigners. Ireland allows noncitizens to vote in some European and all local elections and even provides them the opportunity to run for local political positions. Austria, meanwhile, is so zealous in hunting down illegal residents that school kids have gone into hiding to evade deportation. There is, however, a common thread running through the different policies: Nations' recent pasts have a huge impact on how their governments deal with foreigners today.

In particular, Western European countries' guilt about their World War II-era records can prod governments to be more lenient with outsiders. This is particularly true in Germany, where a little more than six decades ago, the government spearheaded the slaughter of approximately 12 million people, most because of their ethnicities. Some government immigration initiatives are explicitly aimed at making amends. Starting in the 1990s, for example, Germany took in around 200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Of course, just because there is a moral imperative to appear open to foreigners doesn't mean that Germans are genuinely comfortable with outsiders. Indeed, many Germans believe that ethnicity, rather than citizenship, culture, or a sense of allegiance, dictates whether someone is part of the deutsch community. The queasiness with diversity and vigorous political correctness coexist uneasily and can make for disjunctive state policies.

Consider how Germany grants asylum. Asylum seekers the world over have to demonstrate that they face persecution in their country of origin because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinions. (Immigrants, in contrast, can pick up stakes for the sake of work or love—for virtually any reason.) For decades after World War II, Germany had some of the most liberal asylum laws on the planet. After being deluged with applications from Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 1990s, however, the government toughened up the requirements. Asylum seekers who passed through a "safe" third country—and all of Germany's neighbors were deemed safe—no longer qualified. (Click here for more on how asylum works.)

Men and women arriving from the former Yugoslavia were, for the most part, denied asylum and were instead granted "tolerated" status, or Duldung.This is essentially a temporary deportation waiver that must be renewed every six months. There were approximately 175,000 Duldungen in Germany in 2006; they were granted state assistance but could not work and were required to live in state-run housing complexes. In other words, they resided in Germany, but they were not by any measure members of German society.

In 2007, reforms allowed around 40,000 "tolerated" asylum seekers to change to temporary residency status. (Those who qualified had to have been living in the country for a minimum of eight years or at least six if they had kids.) They were given two years to find employment and learn German or face expulsion. Given that few speak the language and that none have been working legally during their years in Germany, it's safe to assume that many will eventually be shipped back home.

It's not just with asylum seekers that Germany displays a "yes—but" attitude. In 2004, when 10 countries—including Poland and the Czech Republic—joined the European Union, their residents were supposed to be granted the right to live and work in the 15 existing member states. (Click here to see the 12 countries that have joined the European Union since 2004.) That right had been granted to residents of the EU 15. But most of Old Europe pushed back and imposed curbs on Eastern bloc citizens' right to work. Germany, along with Austria, was one of the most vociferous in advocating for the work curbs and has announced it will keep them in place until 2011, the maximum period allowed.

Ostensibly, Germany has laid out the welcome mat for a specific kind of immigrant: highly skilled workers, generally in the sciences or high-tech fields. In 2005, in an effort to lure non-EU residents, the government announced that qualifying workers would be granted immediate permanent residency. The salary these men and women had to be offered was so high, though, that barely more than 1,000 non-EU workers took advantage of the offer.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners pour into Germany every year, but nearly as many leave: In 2006, the so-called "net migration" was 75,000 people. Most of the newcomers arrive through family reunification. Turks received about one-quarter of those visas in 2006, and the majority of the permits go to young women (and some men) who are to be married to German Turkish residents. By some estimates, as many as half of German Turks have sought spouses abroad. This gets to the nub of Germany's most profound social problem: The guest workers who arrived in the country during the postwar boom years never really integrated. If they felt a sense of belonging, it is safe to assume that most would find their spouses in Germany rather than looking to their ancestral homeland.

The tradition of importing spouses perpetuates the community's isolation. It means that the growing pains of integration—learning a new language, adapting to a different culture—persist through successive generations. Kids from these homes oftentimes aren't exposed to German until they start kindergarten, by which time many are as old as 6. At the age of 10 (or 12 in Berlin), students of Turkish descent are often diverted into trade schools, or Hauptschulen, and train for jobs that are rapidly disappearing. Turkish unemployment rates are generally double the national average.

The German government has adopted policies to help Turks already living in Germany to integrate. (Turks account for 2.5 million of Germany's 82 million residents.) In 1999, the country scrapped its policy of awarding citizenship at birth only to people who had at least one German parent. This, of course, meant virtually no guest workers or their descendents could qualify. Now a child who is born to a mother or father who has lived legally in the country for a minimum of eight years is a German citizen until the age of 23. At that point, because Germany does not permit dual citizenship, the young people must choose which passport to carry. In part because of the restrictions, only one-third renounced German citizenship.

Germany also clamped down on the practice of importing spouses. Now foreigners wishing to emigrate from countries like Turkey and Morocco have to demonstrate some proficiency in German, and they must be over 16. This has already had an impact: Visa applications from Turkey dropped by about one-third after the law went into effect in 2007. Those would-be spouses who do make the cut will be helped to acclimatize to their new home: Since 2005, the German government has provided language and orientation classes, which are compulsory for immigrants who speak little German and come from countries that require visas for entry.

While some of these changes, like the citizenship provisions, are aimed at making Turks feel they have a stake in German society, a feeling of rejection is pervasive in the Muslim community. Partially in defiance, some younger Turks have become more religious. There are signs that pockets of Islamic radicalism have taken root. Three of the terrorists who participated in the 9/11 attacks—including one of the masterminds, Mohamed Atta—spent time in Germany.

The tensions on the other side of the Atlantic hold a cautionary tale for the United States. The comprehensive immigration bill that died in the Senate last year included a guest-worker program. Germany demonstrates the perils of that model. At the very least, countries should select workers they would be happy to have stick around after their contracts run out. Because many will. And as uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge that these workers may become permanent members of society, it is much more difficult to grapple with a growing and alienated community decades after the program that brought them over "temporarily" has been scrapped.

Alexandra Starris a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University Law School.