The catalyst for Germany's first immigration law was the realization that the country's graying population and declining birth rate will one day threaten to overwhelm social security systems and disrupt the economy if young people didn't immigrate to the country.
At the same time, the new law represents a political compromise by not unrestrainedly throwing open the labor market to immigrants. In light of the country's high unemployment rate, many politicians were wary of doing that, much to the ire of German companies.
Thus, foreigners from non-EU countries will still be denied access to simple jobs. But, they can make use of special regulations -- such as temporary contracts for seasonal workers and nursing personnel -- to work in Germany. Even job-seekers from the ten countries that joined the EU in May this year will have to be patient: Only after seven years will they be permitted to look for jobs in Germany on their own.
A question of qualifications
However, highly-qualified immigrants will get a better deal, regardless of where they come from. According to the Green Card regulation initiated in 2000, foreign computer experts had to leave Germany after five years. The new law allows them to stay permanently. Foreign graduates of German universities will have a year to look for a job here if they want to stay in the country.
The new immigration regulation also welcomes self-employed immigrants -- provided they invest a minimum of €1 million ($1.4 million) and create 10 new jobs. The law also tackles a crucial deterrent to highly-qualified immigrants: bureaucracy. People who wish to work in Germany will thus receive a work and residence permit at one central place, such as the German embassy in their home country.
German for newcomers
Drawing lessons from the past, lawmakers also instilled in the regulation measures meant to improve integration in the face of widespread beliefs that a large number of the roughly 7.3 million foreigners living in Germany have not adjusted socially to their adopted country.
Starting next year, new immigrants will have the right to participate in state-funded German language classes and receive an introduction to the country's justice system, culture and history. The government has earmarked over €200 million towards that purpose.
The authorities may also force foreigners already living in Germany to participate in the courses or forfeit their residence permits or social handouts.
Such courses were previously only offered to ethnic Germans, most of whom immigrated from the former Soviet Union. The new law requires ethnic Germans as well as their family members to pass a language test before they will be allowed to move to Germany.
Changes for refugees
The law also brings small improvements for refugees by being more specific on the recognition of non-state and gender-specific persecution. Refugees from countries that cannot provide protection from persecution will have the right to asylum, including women who fear genital mutilation in their home countries.
But the law doesn't afford an overall right of residence for rejected asylum-seekers who have lived in Germany a long time. They will face deportation, despite refugee organizations' efforts.
Only a small portion of the around 20,000 rejected asylum-seekers a year will profit from the law. Those who have already lived in Germany for five years and cannot be deported for legal reasons -- if they can expect to be tortured in their home countries, for instance -- will receive a limited residence permit.
Individual German states may now decide on a case-by-case basis against deportation. Such decisions will be taken by special commissions that include representatives from the churches as well as the office for foreigners. With the exception of Bavaria, Lower Saxony and Bremen, all German states have said they will set up such commissions in 2005.
Deporting terror suspects
The law is also meant to keep suspected foreign terrorists from legally immigrating to Germany. Before an application for permanent residency is approved by the authorities, Germany's intelligence agency will carry out a background check on every case.
The immigration law will also make it easier to deport foreigners suspected of terrorist links, so-called "Islamic hate-preachers" and human traffickers.