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A woman using a screwdriver to assemble a circuit
Many business leaders say Germany needs to encourage immigration to keep its economy and society afloatImage: Rupert Oberhäuser/imago images

Germany and immigration: Plans for refom

Andrea Grunau | Ben Knight
November 29, 2022

Germany needs hundreds of thousands of new skilled workers, and Olaf Scholz's government is planning a host of reforms to make it easier for them to come. But the political debate will be tough.

https://p.dw.com/p/4KDp6

"We need you," Economy Minister Robert Habeck declared in an English video message on YouTube aimed at foreign workers around the world.

"Germany is a diverse immigration country," insisted Interior Minister Nancy Faeser in an opinion piece written for the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Monday.

"Those who live and work here permanently should also be able to vote and be elected, they should be part of our country," promised Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a speech on Monday, introducing the government's plans on extending citizenship rights.

Germany has been struggling with an acute shortage of skilled workers, especially in technology and the skilled trades, catering, logistics, education and nursing, a shortage that some industry associations say is slowing down the economy. "For many companies, the search for skilled workers is already an existential issue," warned Labor Minister Hubertus Heil at the government's recent skilled workers' summit.

Scholz's government, made up of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), has come up with a swath of measures meant to modernize Germany's immigration law, following through on plans announced when they took office one year ago.

The ideas include plans to lower the bureaucratic obstacles in the asylum system, make it easier for immigrants with so-called tolerated status to get permanent residency and offer citizenship to people who have lived in Germany for a long time.

Objections and warnings from the opposition

But the opposition parties have raised objections to the plans. Friedrich Merz, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has warned that the government was facilitating "immigration into the social welfare systems."

Awkwardly, some in the FDP — one of the chancellor's own coalition partners — have also voiced criticism. FDP General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai told the Rheinische Post, a regional daily, that it was too soon to change Germany's citizenship law.

"There has been no progress at all in countering or combating illegal immigration," Djir-Sarai told the newspaper, before adding that citizenship "should not be at the start of the integration process."

Here's a rundown of the main changes:

Dual citizenship

Germany's citizenship law is to be reformed to allow dual citizenship with countries outside the European Union and Switzerland, and to allow foreigners in Germany to apply for citizenship after five years rather than eight — as long as they fulfill certain integration criteria. This move is aimed at helping to integrate Germany's large population with Turkish roots, many of whom say that giving up their original nationality is the biggest hurdle to taking on German citizenship.

Due to the lack of clear legislation, dual citizenship has de facto already become more than an exception. According to the Federal Interior Ministry, in 2021 the so-called multi-state rate of naturalizations was 69%.

"Many countries around the world have dual citizenship, but we in Germany only have it for certain cases. We want to change this," SPD deputy parliamentary party leader Dirk Wiese told DW.

"These will not be easy political talks," said Wiese. "There have been campaigns against dual citizenship from right-wing conservatives like CDU in the past."

A stack of red German passports with gold lettering and a German eagle embossed on the cover
Restrictions on dual nationality can prevent potential applicants from applying for a German passportImage: Winfried Rothermel/picture alliance

Residency rights for 'tolerated' people

At the end of last year, some 240,000 people were living in Germany with so-called "tolerated" status. That means their asylum application has been rejected, but their deportation has also been suspended — for example, because of a threat in their home country, serious illness or lack of travel documents.

Many people have been living in Germany in this limbo for several years, and some have raised children here and found work in areas where the country needs them — especially in the care sector.

The government is now planning to offer anyone who has spent five years in tolerated status in Germany as of October 1, 2022, a one-year "opportunity residency" — a year they can use to fulfill the necessary criteria to apply for permanent residency. Around 136,000 people are thought to be eligible. A residency status allows people more freedom of movement within Germany and removes the constant threat of deportation, something that makes them more employable.

Integration courses for all

All asylum-seekers are to be given access to integration and vocational language courses from the outset of their arrival in Germany, regardless of their prospects of staying in the country. The government has said this will promote participation and social cohesion.

Deportee being escorted onto an airplane
Last year,11,982 people were deported from Germany, most of them to their countries of originImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Deportations

The other side of the coin: The repatriation of people who cannot stay here is to be enforced more consistently than before, according to the Interior Ministry, particularly for criminals and those considered to be dangerous. For them, deportation and detention pending deportation will be made easier.

Easier family reunification for skilled workers

To make Germany more attractive for skilled workers from non-EU countries, the government is planning to make it easier for them to bring their families along. Close relatives will no longer have to provide proof of language skills before entering the country.

Immigration of skilled workers

A second migration draft law is expected to deal specifically with skilled worker immigration, which is to present the following key points:

The Federal Labor Office has calculated that Germany needs as many as 400,000 workers from abroad every year. Most come from within the EU, but they are not enough to relieve the shortage — not least because most of the larger EU countries are facing similar demographic challenges.

A skilled labor immigration law has been in place since 2020, but the influx from non-EU countries to Germany has been limited, and it shrank further during the pandemic. In 2019, only 39,000 people from non-EU countries came to work in Germany, just 0.1% of the total number of workers in the country. In 2020, that figure dropped to just over 29,000. Business owners have complained of bureaucratic hurdles exacerbated by slow authorities averse to internet-based tools.

Equal opportunities for migrants?

EU Blue Card for academics

The EU-wide Blue Card for highly qualified specialists was introduced in Germany 10 years ago. This granted highly qualified people the right to enter Germany for employment without a priority check to see whether Germans or EU citizens were already available, and without language skills.

As things stand, they must be guaranteed a minimum income of €56,400 ($58,590) a year to rule out wage dumping. The government wants to lower these minimum salaries, something that already applies to occupations that are most short of people, including medicine, IT and engineering. In the future, lower minimum salaries will also apply to those starting out in their careers.

Is Germany's new 'green card' a real opportunity?

Opportunity card

The new "opportunity card," based on a points system, will allow people to enter Germany to look for a job or a training position. The criteria for allocation include qualifications, age, language skills and work experience.

Holger Bonin, research director at the Institute of Labor Economics, is critical of the plans. "The opportunity card creates new hurdles," he told DW. "Before someone can sign an employment contract, they have to present evidence that they don't have to show in other countries."

Skilled workers with vocational training

The government also plans to extend the benefits of the Blue Card to non-academic professions, including everything from cooks and construction experts to energy technicians and truck drivers.

Already now, in addition to the Blue Card, there is a residence permit for skilled workers with a professional qualification recognized in Germany. In the future, these skilled workers could be allowed to pursue a qualified occupation in another area — meaning a mechanic could also work in the logistics industry, for example.

Two young men look closely at a machine while a third, older man, supervizes them
The government wants more people to come to Germany from abroad to study or train for a profession, and then work hereImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

Soliciting students and trainees

Germany also wants more people to come from abroad to study or train for a profession, and then work here with the skills they learn. For that reason, the government is planning to eliminate the "priority check" for apprenticeships, and students will be allowed to work alongside their studies.

Students from non-EU countries with sufficient German language skills are to be able to do internships of up to six weeks without the approval of the Federal Employment Agency.

Western Balkans regulation

The Western Balkans regulation currently allows nationals from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to work in Germany if they have a job offer from a German employer. Prior to approval, a priority check is carried out to determine whether workers from Germany or the EU are also available.

But that regulation was previously limited to the end of 2023. In the future, it is to apply indefinitely. Up until now, there has been a limit of 25,000 people per calendar year. The government would like to significantly increase the quota, and is considering extending it to other countries. The employers' association BDA has called for the quota to be abolished altogether.

Two men work on some rebar at a construction site
The construction industry is one of the sectors employing workers from the BalkansImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Foreign qualifications and work experience

Recognizing foreign qualifications has long been a bureaucratic sticking point. The government wants to make this process easier — for instance, by allowing documents to be submitted in English or other languages, rather than requiring a certified translation. But the government now plans to allow immigration for some professions even without German recognition of their degree.

The prerequisite would be at least two years of work experience and a degree that is recognized in the country of origin. The employer would then be responsible for checking language skills. However, this would not apply to regulated professions such as those in the medical and nursing sectors.

The minimum salary threshold is to be lowered for IT specialists. Employers would decide for themselves what language skills are required. Counseling services for all are to improve "protection against exploitative working conditions."

This article was originally written in German.

Correction: A misleading reference was removed suggesting that the EU Blue Card is analogous to the US Green Card.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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