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Germany

German Greencarders Live Life in Limbo

The German government's green card program brought thousands of foreign IT experts to work in the country for five-year stints, but for many their status remains dubious and life in limbo is not getting easier.

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Foreigners recruited to boost the German IT industry have to leave the country after five years.

"Given the chance to stay here, it would be a tough call," says Diego Carbonell. The 32-year-old Uruguayan came to Germany two and a half years ago. He has a wife, a German-born child and a job developing software in Munich. But he's unable to make long-term decisions, and it's not his fault.

Carbonell is one of about 14,000 foreign workers with a German green card. He was one of the first people to take advantage of the program the German government introduced in August 2000 to make up for the dearth of homegrown IT specialists. The green card enables him to live and work in Germany for five years. After that, though, he is obliged to leave the country.

Now Carbonell is halfway through his term and his future is uncertain. "At my age, I’m starting to plan a family life. But I cannot make decisions. I cannot buy a house. There's no sense in buying a car because I will have to leave in two and a half years," he told Deutsche Welle.

Help online

Carbonell is not alone. Insecurity is one of the main problems green card holders face, according to Detlef von Hellfeld. Von Hellfeld administers a Web site that has become a forum for people in Germany and abroad who are interested in the green card program. He also offers tips and advice to green card holders and maintains a database of around 20,000 people interested in working in Germany.

"It's not easy for green card holders. Just opening a bank account, getting a travel card or a mobile phone contract is difficult," von Hellfeld explains.

Carbonell says he was one of the lucky ones. "In 2000, the lack of an infrastructure [to help foreigners get settled] was made up for by the enthusiasm of the companies. The firm that hired him helped him get settled, including finding an apartment and opening a bank account for him. It relieved Carbonell of many of the bureaucratic headaches foreigners are faced with when they move to Germany.

Still it took him months to complete all the necessary paperwork and do the rounds of all the necessary offices to establish himself as a German resident -- from getting registered at the local police office to getting a telephone hooked up at home.

Problems mount

Now Carbonell is on his third job in Germany. The first company went bankrupt; the second one shut down. He can consider himself lucky to have found a job in economically-depressed Germany, and he may be an exception when it comes to his fellow green card holders.

Although the highly-skilled workers -- who mainly come from Eastern Europe, India and North Africa -- obtained jobs when they arrived in Germany, many have lost their workplaces since the IT industry collapsed. A recent survey suggested that seven percent of green card holders were unemployed.

Von Hellfeld says the foreign workers face an extra hurdle when looking for a new job. "A company will not invest in someone who has a limited residence permit."

Back in March when he saw that the situation was unacceptable, von Hellfeld started collecting signatures from green card holders calling on the German government to offer them permanent resident permits after their five years of working, living and paying taxes and social security contributions in their host country came to an end.

Around 300 people have signed the petition so far -- a number that von Hellfeld admits is low. "We have people coming from countries that aren't democracies. And they're afraid to sign their names. They say, 'I agree with the content, but I'm not sure I want to sign.' I think there would be two or three times as many signatures otherwise. I get a lot of positive feedback."

Waiting for new legislation

Von Hellfeld explains that the new immigration law could have helped solve the problem. If the law had been passed it would have allowed green card holders the opportunity to extend their stays in Germany and eventually obtain permanent residency. But the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament that represents the German states, rejected the bill in June. The legislation -- which would have been the first such law in Germany -- was meant to regulate immigration and provide for measures to integrate foreigners into society.

Now a parliamentary working group will have to hammer out a compromise that both the Bundesrat and the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, will accept.

Von Hellfeld thinks the law will finally be passed at the end of the year and that it will still give green card holders the chance to stay longer in Germany. But if he collects enough signatures before then he will use the petition to put pressure on the government.

Greencarders network

Meanwhile, through the online forum Carbonell is organizing a meeting of "greencarders" in Munich, which will take place on July 26. He says he hopes it will lay the foundations for a network of foreigners who work in Germany. But he stresses that his aims are not political.

"This country is giving us a chance. And we have much to give, not only technical skills. Not forgetting that this is Germany, we could give a little bit of nuance to the cultural diversity, to make this place more multicultural," Carbonell says.

For his own part, his attitude toward living in Germany changes from day to day. "There are some things I will never understand about the German mind," Carbonell admits. "Still there's no perfect place. But Germany could be pretty close."

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