The judge who presided over a recent terrorism case has slammed Germany's immigration authority. He says it has been lax in implementing immigration law. Others say it's doing the best it can with limited resources.
A would-be terrorist: In the country when he legally shouldn't have been
According to Ottmar Breidling, the judge who presided over the case of four would-be terrorists who were convicted in a Düsseldorf court of plotting attacks on Jewish targets in Germany, the case would not have even come to court had the country's immigration authorities done their jobs.
In a scathing dressing down of the immigration office, the judge faulted authorities for not sufficiently investigating the suspects, two Jordanians, a Palestinian and an Algerian, before granting them temporary residency status.
"This trial would not have been required if laws concerning foreigners had been implemented properly," Breidling said, adding that several of the accused had been convicted for drug trafficking and should have been deported. Instead, they were given temporary residency and even welfare benefits after they forged identity papers. It was then that they begin building their terror cell.
He said had the men been forced to leave Germany, the state would have been spared both an expensive, 20-month trial and a serious terror threat.
It also emerged that four witnesses in the trial were illegal immigrants who received German citizenship by using false passports.
Immigrants waiting in front of the Hamburg immigration office
The interior ministry of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Düsseldorf is located, said it was responding to the criticism and reviewing which offices were in charge of providing the permits to the men.
But in what is illustrative of the Byzantine and often conflicting areas of responsibility in Germany's complicated system of immigration agencies, offices tend to assign blame to each other.
"Our first task is to look into the circumstances," said Dagmar Pelzer, a spokeswoman for the North Rhine-Westphalia interior ministry, which is responsible for the immigration office in that state. "But from what we know up to now, the criticism of our office is not justified."
She added that crucial decisions "were made by the federal immigration authority. We can’t do anything about that." But the federal office, in turn, threw the responsibility back to those at the state level.
"Our understanding is that the state offices are the focus of the critique, since we have nothing to do with deportation issues," said Claudia Möbus, a spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
But the fact that the four convicted men slipped through Germany's immigration system, despite convictions and fraud, is not that surprising, according to Peter Knösel, a professor who studies immigration at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences.
African asylum seekers in Hamburg
He says Germany's immigration officers generally do a fairly good job with the resources they have at hand, despite the criticism often expressed by both officials and immigrant support groups.
He says they are working under extreme pressure, including understaffing, outdated technical systems, inadequate training and a gargantuan bureaucracy that, by its very nature, allows some people to slip under the radar.
"How is your average civil servant working in an immigration office supposed to see through the false passport and identity papers from, say, Chechnya?" he asked. "To really check out these stories on the ground is almost impossible."
He cited the example of Berlin, which has about 250 people in its immigration office responsible for about 480,000 foreigners.
"It's a question of effectiveness and choosing which cases to double check," he said. Sometimes, he added, the right cases are not chosen.
He said Germany has made strides when it comes to tracing terror suspects, since outgoing Interior Minister Otto Schily put the terrorism fight on the top of the agenda.
Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, home to many immigrants
But if Germany wants to become more effective, it still needs to look at drastically improving communication, increasing funding, establishing working relationships between immigration and law-enforcement offices, and restructuring the relationships between federal and state authorities.
That could be in the cards, since federal reform in several areas is near the top of the agenda for the incoming grand coalition, which is currently engaged in talks to form the next government.
Some immigration and refugee groups fear that this latest news of a terror group whose members were in Germany illegally -- and even living off the state in some cases -- could result in more ill will among the populace toward immigrants.
"We're not saying these cases are harmless, but to conclude from them that all asylum seekers or temporary residents are suspect is wrong," said Marei Pelzer of Pro-Asyl. "That's the danger that we're warning about."
She said she hopes the judge's critique does not result in politicians playing the populist card and implementing laws that would make it tougher for immigrants or asylum seekers to stay in the county.
"It can't get any tougher than it already is," she added. "Ever since the new anti-terror laws and the new immigration law (went into effect), there is a new control and supervisory apparatus in existence unlike we've ever seen before."