With the status and protests of illegal immigrants in the United States making the headlines over the past days and weeks, the same question can be posed for Germany: How do illegal immigrants fare in this country?
Many illegal immigrants in Germany come from Africa, Eastern Europe or Latin America. Most of them start off with a tourist visa and end up hiding out here illegally. According to estimates by aid organizations, around one million foreigners live in German without proper resident permits or visas. They are reluctant to speak about their often catastrophic situation for fear of being deported.
Frida is one example. She's African and, five years ago, was living in slave-like conditions in her home country: she was not permitted to leave the house and had no money of her own. She fled and came to Germany to stay with her aunt. Once here, she met her now fiancé -- it was love at first sight.
That is still the only way illegal immigrants can gain citizenship here -- to marry a German. Another option -- for women -- is to have a child with a German man.
Illegal immigrants face deportation
German Office for Migration and Refugees
If they do not have proper papers, illegal immigrants will be deported since they are committing a criminal offense by staying in the country. Only so-called "deportation barriers" can protract them, said Reinhard Marx, an immigration lawyer.
"Legal deportation barriers include protection for internally displaced persons or asylum-seekers or protection from threats to immigrants' lives, such as torture, should they face it in their home countries," Marx said. "On the other hand, there are the rules governing the situation here: such as when an immigrant is sick or pregnant, making it inadvisable to deport that person due to health reasons."
Illegal immigrants whose identities are not confirmed or who cannot reach their home countries due to disrupted transportation routes, and therefore cannot leave the country, are given a temporary stay permit.
Turkish women in Berlin-Kreuzberg
Many of the illegal immigrants who come to Germany have followed relatives who are now living legally in the country. The largest group of illegal aliens are Turkish people, said Ute Koch of an organization called "Living Illegally."
"There are children and older people who want to live with their relatives residing in Germany, but due to strict regulations illegal immigration is often the only thing left
open to them," she said. "The possibilities for legal migration are very limited."
Once in the country, illegal aliens keep a low profile. They cannot protest if they are paid too little or not at all for their work, as they risk deportation. Employers often take advantage of the dilemma.
When ill, illegal immigrants are forced to find a doctor who will treat them anonymously and who expects private payment, which most immigrants cannot afford. They therefore often wait until it is almost too late to receive proper treatment.
That was the case with Frida. She had stomach pains for a long time and just took pain killers. She collapsed one day in the city; an ambulance took her to the hospital. Doctors discovered that she had gall stones. She left the hospital after two days, for which she had to pay 500 euros ($630), and still had not had an operation. She continued to live with the pain until an aid organization arranged for surgery. Her gall bladder was already perforated; had she let any more time pass, she would have died.
Not only had she not been able to pay for the operation -- Frida also feared police would track her down in the hospital. Though Frida has just married and has a legal residence permit, she is still scared to talk. The years of living illegally have made their mark.
Public kindergartens and schools are also required to notify police of children or families without proper resident permits. The result: illegal immigrant children do not receive education, and are forced to stay inside out of fear of drawing attention to themselves by not being in school as required for minors.
Restricting illegal immigration harms the economy
One would think the easiest solution would be to crack down on illegal aliens even more. But like in the United States, the demand for them is great. Illegal immigrants provide cheap labor and do the work most Germans avoid, Thomas Straubhaar of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, said.
"Even if it sounds odd, it's true that -- given the current regulations -- Germany is dependent on illegal employment of foreign laborers," Straubhaar said.