German bill would ease entry for some

July 04, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN - Germany is accepting what it once loathed pondering: It is a country of immigrants.

The nation's cities flicker with languages, cultures and skin tones of people who have been arriving since the end of World War II. But it is only now that the country, with its history of cultural intolerance, appears ready to pass a sweeping immigration law.

Noting shortages of engineers, scientists and computer specialists, the legislation would ease entry requirements for some and recognize the need for skilled non-Europeans in this rapidly aging population.

It also meets the demands of conservative politicians for swifter deportation of religious extremists. German courts have heard three al-Qaida-related cases in the past year, and police have questioned dozens suspected of being Islamic radicals.

The bill, a compromise between conservative Christian Democrats and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's left-leaning Social Democrats, comes amid fears that foreigners are eroding Germany's national character. A similar attitude resonates throughout Europe. The continent needs new blood to stay economically competitive, but since terrorists bombed several Madrid commuter trains in March, Europeans worry that many immigrants are espousing anti-Western values.

"People are afraid of immigration," said Olav Gutting, a conservative Christian Democrat in Parliament, who noted that 9 percent of Germany's population of 83 million is foreign-born. "Germans, especially politicians, never talk about Germany as a country of immigrants, but the fact is that for 40 years we've been one. Yet Germany is no melting pot."

Several political parties, notably the Greens, are concerned that the legislation would give law enforcement agencies broad discretion in investigating foreigners. Many politicians are critical of the detentions of suspected militants by the U.S. Justice Department and warn against an atmosphere that jeopardizes constitutional protections. The country's Nazi past has made Germans sensitive to targeting anyone based on race or religion.

Vural Oger knows well the subtle but deeply entrenched dividing lines in German society. He is a successful businessman who moved to Germany from Turkey more than 40 years ago. He became a German citizen, was recently elected to the European Parliament and advises Schroeder on immigration matters.

"But newspapers still refer to me as a Turk with a German passport," said Oger, who owns a travel agency, hotels and other tourist ventures. "The new law was to create a modern, forward-thinking society. It was watered down. What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, directly influenced this law, and I'm worried about possible abuses to civil freedoms."

Statistics suggest that Germany might be forced to temper its uneasiness about foreigners. To sustain its current population, the country would need a net gain of about 500,000 immigrants a year, according to the Bureau of Federal Statistics. To keep the labor force stable, the statistics suggest, Germany would require about 30 million working-age immigrants by 2050.

Some estimates indicate that - with a national fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman - 40 percent of Germans will be older than 60 by the middle of the century.

"The homogeneous society is fading, and it's bye-bye old Germany," said Hans Fleisch, chairman of the Berlin Institute for World Population and Global Development. "Germans are frightened of this change. I just came from a conference of 80 mayors, and they're saying, `What now?' In the next 20 years, populations in cities such as Frankfurt will be 50 percent foreign-born."

The proposed immigration law, expected to pass Parliament , would allow Germany to be selective, admitting only highly skilled foreigners. It would extend visas and encourage employment for foreign graduates of German universities. The legislation also threatens cuts to social benefits for immigrants who don't learn the German language and do not integrate quickly.

Since the emergence of Turkish guest workers in the 1960s and through the arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, Germany has failed to create a seamless ethnic society. The veneer of integration has been further strained as the nation undergoes painful social and labor reforms that have created resentment toward immigrants, whom many Germans see as milking the system.

The country's unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent has labor unions unconvinced of the need for importing workers. But, unlike in Asia and the United States, the German education system has not produced enough highly skilled technical professionals. Business leaders have also complained for years that thousands of young and educated Germans escape the nation's high taxes and bureaucracy to work in other markets.

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