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Immigration Bill Becomes German Law, Faces Attack

Europe: Conservative opposition says it will mount a constitutional challenge to the statute, which eases entry for skilled workers.

June 21, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — German President Johannes Rau signed into law Thursday an immigration bill aimed at attracting high-tech experts to boost this country's stagnant industrial sector. Conservative opponents immediately announced that they will mount a constitutional challenge.

The long-contemplated and much-revised immigration law had been languishing on Rau's desk since March 22, when it squeaked by the upper house of Parliament in a close and controversial vote. Rau spent the last three months seeking legal advice on the bill's constitutionality--and deciding the proper moment to make his call on legislation that promises to infuse more strife into the current federal election campaign.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, his Social Democratic Party and the Greens, partners in the ruling coalition, have hailed the immigration law as a major achievement of their four-year term in government. However, the notion of opening the door wider to foreigners and seeking to better integrate those already here has been seized upon by the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, as purported evidence that the current leadership is endangering German jobs.

The bill has the support of German employers, the conservatives' political allies in the pro-business Free Democratic Party and even some prominent members of the CDU. But Schroeder's challenger for the chancellery, Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber, has cast the measure as a threat to the economy, which is already suffering about 10% unemployment.

Despite statistical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, Stoiber's claims that the policies on immigration contained in the bill will undermine the troubled economy have been gaining the ear of disgruntled German voters. The Bavarian now enjoys as much as a 7 percentage point lead over Schroeder and the Social Democrats with just three months to go before the Sept. 22 election.

No sooner had Rau signed the law than the conservative governors of three states--Hesse, Bavaria and Thuringia--announced that they would call for a Constitutional Court review of its approval by the Bundesrat, or upper house of Parliament. That 35-34 vote has been denounced by the conservatives as illegal because one of the four members for the state of Brandenburg, which is governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and the CDU, sought unsuccessfully to cast his vote against the bill. The constitution requires unanimous votes from each state or abstention, and all four votes from Brandenburg were counted as yes.

The legal challenge could take many months to resolve. Although the Constitutional Court is supposed to be above partisan politics, it is unlikely to issue a decision before the election for fear of being accused of bias.

That legal limbo leaves the issue ripe for political harvest, but the CDU has mixed experience with playing the anti-immigrant card. The party has been accused of pandering to racist hostility with its claims that immigrants are a threat to prosperity and security, and the Free Democrats already are embroiled in a controversy about remarks made by a senior member that have been denounced by Jewish leaders as anti-Semitic.

Still, Stoiber and his allies have shown themselves ready to run with the anti-immigrant issue, most recently at their annual party congress in Frankfurt earlier this week when they vowed to repeal the changes if they are elected.

The immigration law, which would take effect Jan. 1 if cleared of the constitutional challenge, is the product of years of negotiation among politicians, employers, churches and social groups within the federal Independent Commission on Immigration, headed by former parliamentary President Rita Suessmuth.

A prominent CDU member, Suessmuth has described Stoiber's views on the bill as "problematic" because they ignore the need for tens of thousands of workers the commission estimates should be allowed to immigrate to make up for Germany's aging and shrinking population.

The law consolidates decades of ad hoc legislation into a single code aimed at easing visa and residency permit procedures for those who could bring in needed abilities and entrepreneurial skills. It also provides for German language instruction for foreign residents who fail a proficiency test--assistance long sought by all leading political factions to better integrate the 7.3 million non-Germans already living in the country.

Although more than 4 million German workers are jobless, the country still suffers a dearth of at least 75,000 workers trained in computers and technology. Most of the unemployed here reside in eastern states where Communist-era heavy industries that were not competitive have shut down. Those from western states also tend to come from the manufacturing sector, where robotics and technological improvements have led to massive downsizing of the labor force.

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