Germans Consider U.S. Experience in Immigration Debate | Current Affairs | DW | 05.12.2003
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Current Affairs

Germans Consider U.S. Experience in Immigration Debate

As German government and opposition officials meet on Friday in an attempt to reach a compromise on proposals for a new immigration law, some say Germany should look to the U.S. immigration experience for guidance.


Born in Germany, but not necessarily German

Friday’s discussions could decide the fate of sweeping immigration law reforms proposed by the government. The plans, which failed to garner opposition support earlier this year, are intended to regulate immigration. They propose measures to integrate foreigners into German society, including compulsory language and citizenship courses.

The government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens views immigration as a crucial tool to counter Germany’s aging and declining population, which is expected to pose serious problems for the country’s social welfare systems and labor market in the coming decades.

Rentner auf der Parkbank

Every third German will be 60 or older by 2050.

While generally supportive of a new immigration law, leaders of the conservative opposition Christian Democrat Union reject large portions of the proposal. They say Germany’s labor market cannot handle more immigrants at the same time the country is struggling to deal with high unemployment rates.

Although heated debates surround the current proposals, most German politicians agree that immigration is necessary for the country’s future. What lessons, then, can Germany draw from the United States, which built itself on the fruits of immigrant labor and initiative?

U.S. a land of immigrants

Since its beginnings, the United States has been referred to as a melting pot. It is a land of immigrants, who, with a trace of pride, still call themselves African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and German-Americans generations after their ancestors first set foot on American soil.

Steuben-Parade in New York

German-Americans proudly display their heritage during the annual Steuben parade in New York.

While many identify with their ethnic roots, they often see themselves first and foremost as Americans. This says a lot about the positive light in which immigration is perceived in the United States, despite some dark spots in U.S. immigration history.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, barred Chinese nationals from becoming U.S. citizens and was not repealed until 1943. A decade later, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act targeted communists as unworthy of pledging their allegiance to the American flag.

Still, the United States takes in about 1.5 million immigrants each year, according to the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. By comparison, 220,000 people have entered Germany on average each year over the last decade, about half of the U.S. number when the population size of both countries is considered.

Immigrants in Germany still struggling to fit in

For the past 30 to 40 years, Germany and immigrants who have moved here have been asking the question: What role will immigrants play in German society and will there be a kind of integration possible as is often pointed to in the United States?

Workers from Turkey and Yugoslavia, who were brought to Germany to help rebuild the country after World War II, have long struggled to obtain German citizenship without relinquishing their original nationalities.

While most countries, including the U.S., grant citizenship to anyone born on their territory, German citizenship was based on German descent until a few years ago. That meant that despite living 20 years in the country and raising children, an entire family could still be considered foreign. The law was changed to grant citizenship to children born to parents who had been living legally in the country for at least eight years.

Progress, despite a low level of tolerance

Germany has progressed, according to Cem Özdemir, a German of Turkish origin and a former member of parliament for the Green party. Still, he’s often dismayed by what he calls a “low level of tolerance” in German society.

Whereas in the United States immigration is seen as something positive, in Germany it is often viewed rather negatively, he told DW-RADIO. Germany can learn a lot from the United States on the issue of integration of people with different ethnic backgrounds, Özdemir added.

Straßenszene in Berlin Kreuzberg mit Thumbnail

Almost a third of the people living in Berlin's Kreuzberg district are foreigners.

“We should also try to achieve a color blind society where it is not important where your parents came from, but it is important what you try to contribute to the country in which you live,” said Özdemir, who is a candidate in the 2004 EU parliamentary elections.

Can the U.S. learn from the European experience?

On the other hand, Germany’s experience with European integration and swelling immigrant communities from Africa, Asia, India and Russia may rapidly be bringing about such change. Vangala Ram, a U.S. diplomat in Germany, is convinced that the United States also has a few things to learn.

“I think it is a very interesting time to be in Europe as an American,” Ram said. ”We can see clearly that a community of 25 nations is developing, although they have different languages and different living standards. That’s clearly something that would interest us as Americans.”

If the tables have begun to turn in Germany, there has also been a change of attitudes in the U.S. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the U.S. position on immigration became less welcoming.

Demonstration in Washington gegen die Ausgrenzung von arabischen Mitbürgern und Muslimen

American students demonstrate their support for Muslim and Arab immigrants after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

U.S. citizens began to see immigration as a threat to national security. Measures taken since 2001 have indeed made life more difficult for immigrants, particularly for those coming from the Middle East. But Ram said he is hopeful that the country’s tendency to be a home to immigrants will not decline.

The U.S. will have to try to replicate the kind of assimilation of immigrants achieved in the 19th and 20th centuries, although the ethnic and religious diversity of immigrants has increased. “We’ve done that in the past and I am very optimistic that we are going to be able to do that in the future,” Ram said.

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