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Immigration Bill Faces a New Holdup

Germany: Landmark legislation that would let in a limited number of skilled foreign workers may get tied up in a constitutional review.


BERLIN — A landmark immigration law cleared its last legislative hurdle nearly a month ago, but election-year politics have taken it hostage.

The bill, which would ease the entry of a limited number of skilled foreigners, finally recognizes Germany as a multicultural society, supporters say. Detractors say it wantonly throws open the country's doors to job-stealing foreigners and religious extremists.

The legislation has languished on the desk of President Johannes Rau since its March 21 approval because opponents have vowed to challenge it on a procedural technicality.

Rau is expected to sign the bill, perhaps by the end of this month, after weighing the advice of legal experts. But archconservative followers of Christian Social Union leader and chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber say they will block the bill from becoming law by calling for what could be a lengthy Constitutional Court review.

Stirring up anti-immigrant sentiments has been a tried-but-not-always-true campaign tactic in Germany. The Christian Democratic Union, which is allied with the CSU, soared to victory in Hesse state in 1999 by bashing government policy toward the 9% of this country's 82 million people that is non-German.

But the Kinder Statt Inder--"Our Children, Not Indians"--electoral cry of the party in North Rhine-Westphalia two years ago backfired badly, leaving the Social Democratic governor firmly in office and painting the Christian Democrats as opportunistic panderers to racist hostility.

"I don't think they are winning a lot of credibility with this latest campaign," said Cem Oezdemir, a Greens Parliament member and naturalized son of Turkish immigrants. "There is not even unity among the Christian Democrats on the wisdom of pushing this message."

Conservatives hoping to unseat the Social Democratic governor of eastern Saxony-Anhalt state in an election Sunday have been warning voters that the law threatens further job losses; the state is afflicted with the country's highest unemployment rate at more than 20%. Stoiber has referred to the state vote--the last before Sept. 22 federal elections--as a referendum on immigration policy.

Bill Would Ensure Visas, While Cutting Red Tape

"When they start such a campaign in a state where foreigners are less than 2% of the population, they are really playing with fire and they know it," Oezdemir warned. "It's mathematically impossible for non-Germans to be responsible for the state's high unemployment."

The immigration bill, as passed by the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, on March 1 and narrowly endorsed by the upper house 35-34, aims to replace decades of ad hoc practices in deciding work and residency permits. Skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs willing to bring their business to Germany would be guaranteed visas and spared much of the current red tape. The bill also mandates German-language training for refugees and immigrants who fail a proficiency test--a measure long sought by all political factions to better integrate those allowed to move here.

Once signed by Rau--now officially nonpartisan but a longtime Social Democrat--and sent for Constitutional Court review, the bill, which was intended to become law Jan. 1, 2003, could be paralyzed for months on the court's crowded docket. A quick-review option exists for matters deemed urgent, but with the pressures of a political battle between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Stoiber escalating, many fear that the court, which is supposed to be above partisan influences, will put off consideration until after the federal election.

Though Germany suffers more than 10% unemployment, its industrial chieftains estimate that there is a dearth of high-technology know-how to the tune of at least 75,000 workers. Most jobless Germans came from the antiquated heavy industries of eastern Germany and from manufacturing spheres increasingly driven by robotics. But the nation's network of trade schools and universities has proven too slow to respond to the new needs of industry by training more specialists or re-educating laid-off blue-collar workers for technology jobs.

More Jobs Than Resources Can Fill

"People don't always understand that just because we have high unemployment, that doesn't mean we can fill every job with available resources," said Barbara John, Berlin's ombudsman for foreigner issues who departs from her Christian Democratic colleagues in supporting the immigration law.

"This law will make it possible to bring in those people most needed to spur economic growth," John said. "What's more, we can finally offer jobs and residency permits to those foreign students who do study here. Up to now, we've been training specialists for the U.S. market because foreign graduates found it easier to move there than stay here."

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