The German government is slowly delivering on its promise to hash out a new immigration law to fill the massive gaps in the market for skilled labor. But experts say the law can only do so much.
Germany is short of nurses, care workers, construction workers, carpenters, electricians, and IT specialists, and businesses have long been demanding that the government make it easier for skilled workers, including those from outside the European Union, to move to Germany — notwithstanding a political climate that has become toxic for many immigrants.
German unemployment is currently at a low, with only 2.2 million out of work. And according to Stefan Hardege of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), some 60 percent of businesses say that the lack of employees is a threat to their growth.
On Tuesday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a few details from a leaked preliminary draft for a new immigration law, which is set to be approved by Angela Merkel's cabinet before the end of the year.
The new law, if and when it is passed, would strip away a key regulation: That people from outside the EU can only take a job if there is no German or EU citizen who is able to do it instead. Not only that, the new regulation will not be limited to sectors where there is an acute shortage. This would effectively mean that anyone with a recognized qualification and a work contract could move to Germany.
The draft law also contains provisions allowing skilled workers to move to Germany for six months to look for work, or to freelance, as long as they are able to support themselves and can speak German.
But, as immigration experts pointed out, instituting a law is only helpful if you have the bureaucratic resources, not to mention the bureaucratic will, to implement it.
Processing visa applications has become a major issue, experts explained on Tuesday at an event organized by the media service Mediendienst Integration. People hoping to move to Germany from major hubs in the US or Indian cities with a high concentration of IT workers, like Bangalore, often have to wait months to get visa appointments at German consulates or embassies.
Lawyer Bettina Offer, who represents big German companies looking for employees abroad, said that for that reason, she welcomed the fact that the new law appeared to include a fast-track feature. But though she saw that a lot of people were coming to Germany, she warned that the authorities were "at the limit of what they can administer" currently. "Even if we get a new law, if we don't get a new bureaucracy we won't be able to process any more people," she said.
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Experts also spoke of a fundamental antipathy towards immigration among German officialdom. Offer said that bureaucrats sometimes find the smallest reasons to refuse employees a work permit.
"And our clients are major companies, not small businesses that want to smuggle people in so they can disappear," she said. Not only that, with around 570 foreign national offices across the country, there are often wild differences in the interpretation of complex laws — and sometimes officials are ignorant of the latest legal alterations, she said.
A basic antipathy
Thomas Gross, immigration law professor at Osnabrück University, agreed. "The law for foreign nationals has for decades been based on the premise that immigration is basically not wanted in Germany," he said. "As a rule, residency is only granted when there is a concrete economic demand or an individual humanitarian reason."
He pointed out that limiting immigration is enshrined in the first paragraph of Germany's residency law, although he admitted that things are "moving in the right direction." He also added that though Germany does have one of the most generous regulation systems in Europe, the laws were structured to help people contribute to the economy, but not necessarily integrate into society.
Gross found two main problems with the few elements of the new law that have been made public so far. "If we really want to make ourselves an attractive country for immigration, further integration prospects need to be opened, for instance by shortening the time needed to get permanent residency," he said. "The draft law also shies away from making use of the foreigners already living here. Also there is the old issue of dual citizenship, which for many people is a practical criteria that rules Germany out." In most cases, non-EU citizens have to renounce their citizenship to become German.
Hardege, of the DIHK, said many German companies constantly complain that the laws are still very opaque, that it is often unclear what immigration status potential workers have or would have, and how long it would take for them to be processed by authorities. "Those things have a deterrent effect on the companies," he said. "And of course when things take so long the skilled workers go elsewhere."