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Germany is introducing "Blue Cards" designed to make the immigration process easier for skilled workers. Among other measures, the program rewards immigrants who learn German.
The United States has its green card, and now Europe is trying its hand at a "Blue Card." An EU directive created in 2009 aims to attract highly qualified non-EU nationals by simplifying entry procedures and residence rights.
While Germany was supposed to implement the directive by last June, it has taken its time - partially because immigration has remained a sensitive topic. That once again became evident when the draft law was passed on Friday, bringing Germany's coalition and opposition into the boxing ring.
The German government is keen to control immigration based on what newcomers bring to the country. Only people with a university degree or "certified qualifications based on at least five years of work experience" are entitled to a Blue Card. There are also minimum salary requirements for getting one.
"If someone receives a salary offer of 45,000 euros (about $60,000), then it's a clear signal that, for one, an institution here wants to employ him or her, and two, that he or she is qualified enough," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said. "Otherwise, the offer wouldn't be made."
Friedrich, from the ruling coalition member Christian Social Union (CSU), made the comment during Friday's debate.
The Blue Card debate brought out long-standing differences over immigration to Germany
For occupations where Germany is particularly lacking in qualified workers, the salary threshold for a Blue Card is supposed to be just under 35,000 euros. Friedrich stressed the wage requirement is not intended to be an incentive for brining engineers and doctors to Germany, but simply a qualification for getting a Blue Card.
Germany's opposition has a different take on the prgoram.
"The SPD wants to see highly qualified workers come to Germany, but it opposes dumping wages," said Social Democrat Daniela Kolbe. "This salary threshold is contrary to European law and too low in terms of the employment market."
Kolbe considers an annual salary of just under 35,000 euros too low even for engineers, physicists and mathematicians at the beginning of their careers. She added that such workers just starting out in Germany's public sector make at least 40,000 euros per year.
EU regulations require Blue Card holders' wages to be 1.2 to 1.5 times higher than the average salary in the country where the card holders are living. Jörn Wunderlich of the Left Party criticized the German government's inclusion of part-time and temporary employment in its calculations.
"This is about employment for highly qualified people," he said in parliament, "and they're making their wage calculations based on salaries from insecure jobs?"
Wunderlich said according to his calculations, the minimum salary for blue cards holders should be 63,150 euros.
Putting a premium on language
But the opposition weren't just targeting the wage requirements, they also criticized proposed time limits on residency permits.
The new policy allows people looking for work to stay in Germany for up to six months. Those who find a job that meets the minimum salary requirements can remain for three years. If the card holder forms a lasting relationship at a company, he or she can acquire permanent residency. Either way, workers who demonstrate good knowledge of German can extend their stay by two years.
Reinhard Grindel of the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) said that last measure represented a real paradigm shift for Germany.
"We reward it when people learn German," he said. "Whoever says yes to our country and makes an effort to integrate will solidify their residence status more quickly."
"That's clever integration policy," Grindel concluded.
Green parliamentarian Memet Kilic had a completely different opinion. He said an IT specialist who needs English for his or her work should not be excluded on the grounds of lackluster German.
"Otherwise, Germany can only hope to draw good minds from Austria and German-speaking Switzerland," he said.
Kilic said that compared to Germany's previous rules for highly skilled workers, the EU-sanctioned Blue Card is actually a step backwards. He especially pointed to the waiting period before skilled workers can acquire a residency permit.
"Does the government really think skilled workers plan their futures in Germany with a time limit in mind?" he said during debate.
Are immigrants really welcome?
Opposition Social Democrats and the Left Party said Germany lacks a welcoming culture for immigrants, which discourages them from coming to the country.
"Immigrants must be shown, and it must be a living reality, that German companies, authorities, and people on the street want, welcome and treasure them," SPD parliamentarian Daniela Kolbe said.
After 90 minutes of debate, the German parliament voted to implement the EU directive on highly qualified workers. The ruling CDU, CSU and Free Democratic (FDP) coalition voted in favor of the legislation, the SPD and Greens abstained, and the Left Party voted against.
The government said the EU's blue card policy sets up a framework for Germany to bring in more skilled workers. It added though that the burden was now on employers and businesses to be more active and to make use of the new law.
Author: Sabine Kinkartz / srs
Editor: Mark Hallam