Building Bridges and Crossing Borders: The Debate over Immigration

Posted in Other | 01-Apr-06 | Author: Jackson Janes

Jackson Janes is member of the WSN International Advisory Board

What to do With Increasing Immigration
The debate over immigration policies has reached center stage in the U.S. as the House and Senate debate the need for more effective measures to deal with the rising tide of illegal immigration into the U.S. With estimates of over eleven million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. and a half million entering annually, there are demands for both better enforcement to stem that tide and for measures to transform the current unauthorized immigrants into legal and integrated members of society. The dangers of ignoring this problem can be seen in the creation of a growing segment of the population that has been both invisible and isolated from the larger society. The price for that situation could be seen in the streets of Paris recently.

The focus in Congress is how to strike a balance among the multiple goals of new legislation: strengthening border security; providing for legalizing undocumented workers; establishing temporary guest-worker programs; and allowing illegal immigrants in the U.S. to apply for citizenship. How to square the political circle of interests in this debate is not clear, especially when it is going on in a highly-contested election year.

Germany's Gastarbeiter Experience
One aspect of this debate harkens back to the German experience with immigration, i.e. the guest worker program idea. The "Gastarbeiter" program initiated in the early 1960s brought guest workers to Germany, a large portion of which came from Turkey and then Yugoslavia. By the time that program was terminated in 1973, it began to dawn on the German government that all of the guests were not going to go home to lower job prospects, and they wanted their families to join them in Germany. During the next thirty years, these workers and their families became a permanent presence. These workers with limited educational levels became a critical part of the labor force, but as Germany's economy began to strain under the pressures of global competition, they also became part of the growing unemployment ranks; indeed, they suffered a rate double that of the national average. Along the way, they also became part of political tensions generated by right-wing reactions to both the foreign population, as well as the exploding numbers of asylum seekers in the wake of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. In 2004, Germany eventually passed its first law to regulate immigration in the future. After many years of more or less fruitful debate, the fact that Germany had become an immigration country finally received the official acceptance it required. (Click here for more information on the 2004 law)

Of today's foreign population in Germany totaling some seven million people, around half come from the countries that were originally sources for the guest workers. Turks now make up 25 percent of the foreign population in Germany. Of that group, over a third were born in Germany. Almost 30 percent of Italian-Germans were born there. Overall, more than 20 percent of foreigners living in Germany were born in the country.

Becoming Part of the System
Such figures only underline the fact that the assumption of rotation in the guest worker program is questionable. People come to work and then become part of the system in which they have a stake. Germany is not facing the flows of illegal immigration on the scale which the U.S. is experiencing, in part because it is encased within the European Union's frontiers. It did, at least, make sure that the new members of the European Union would have to wait a few years before labor mobility was possible within the EU. Yet it is facing the problem of finding ways for its foreign population to get both the education and employment opportunities they need to secure their futures while avoiding the formation of a permanent underclass. There are some unsettling signs that might already be happening.

This will need to occur at the same time that the social welfare state is facing serious structural transformations if it is going to continue to be solvent. The need for such reforms is not a result of immigration; rather, it stems from the need to rebalance the equation between the social and market dimensions of Germany's welfare state. Yet that is not always recognized within the political debates where emotional issues can get easily stirred up. That danger is currently visible in the American context.

It also comes at a point where the composition of the labor market is adjusting from an emphasis on heavy industry to high-tech and service sectors. The question is where and how immigrants, and their children, will find their access and opportunity in a changing social and economic environment.

Social and Economic Integration
Even at different starting points, Germany and the U.S. face the same challenge of dealing with the international movement of people across borders in ever-increasing numbers exactly when the social and economic fabric is going through significant transformation. It is a highly complex process of managing both the enforcement of laws and supporting the promotion of social and economic integration. And it is exacerbated by heightened concerns about homeland security.

In the U.S., immigration problems emerge from a system that seems to be unable to break the vicious circle of illegal immigrants connecting with employers looking for cheap labor. In Germany, the challenge is to provide adequate opportunities to absorb immigrants by creating the basis for them to have a stake in their future. In both situations, if perceptions of that future are bleak, it will have long-term negative consequences for the whole society.

Immigration is always a two way street, between the countries involved and among the people engaging each other amidst all their differences. It is also a process of finding common ground in which citizens and immigrants should have a common stake. Whether the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic can steer that process in the right direction is not self-evident. In the end, the need for temporary workers might be arguable, but the larger issues surrounding them are certainly not temporary. Defining the bridges and borders among nations is about defining what kind of a society we want to build, citizen and immigrant alike.


This essay appeared in the March 31, 2006 AICGS Advisor.

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