As Anti-foreigner Sentiment Rises, German Politics Follows

In a neck-and-neck campaign, the thorny issue of immigration has become a main political theme.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A close race in Sunday's German federal elections has forced open a touchy topic: What to do with nearly 8 million foreigners residing in Germany.

The term "foreigner" is a euphemism for many of these people, who were born and raised in Germany and speak German as their native tongue.

They continue to hold foreign passports due to antiquated citizenship laws, which date back to 1913, restricting automatic citizenship to those of ethnic German heritage. Everyone else faces numerous bureaucratic hurdles, including 15 years of residence, before they can apply.

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At a recent town hall meeting near Frankfurt, Ignatz Bubis, head of Germany's Jewish community, said that the word "foreigner" is often a misnomer in Germany. "We should say 'strangers,' or 'those we feel to be strangers,' he said.

The meeting was sponsored by the left-wing Green Party, in part to protest nationalist and xenophobic tones in the current political race.

In previous elections, such themes were a staple of the right wing. But this year they have been taken up by established conservative parties, which are calling for the deportation of foreigners who commit crimes here. In addition, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union has plastered billboards across the country with the xenophobic slogan: "Germany is not a country of immigration."

Cigdem Akkaya, deputy director of the Center for Turkish Studies in Essen, rejects that notion. "I think even the conservative voters know that Germany has become a land of immigration," she says.

At just under 2 million, Turkish immigrants make up about 25 percent of Germany's foreign population.

Ms. Akkaya warns that such campaign posters are dangerous. "It perpetuates the idea that [foreign born] people can be sent back, which isn't realistic. The migration process can't be reversed.

Germany has no general immigration law. Most newcomers fall into one of three categories: political-asylum seekers, eastern Europeans of ethnic German heritage, and families of migrant workers who came to Germany after World War II, on what was supposed to be a temporary basis, from countries such as Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece.

This narrow definition of potential legal immigrants heightens suspicion of foreigners in a culture that historically has an uneven record in its willingness to absorb outsiders.

Anti-foreigner sentiment has become even stronger since the end of the cold war and the relaxation of European borders, when tens of thousands of refugees from around the world came here seeking political asylum.

Earlier this year, anti-foreigner rhetoric helped the far-right German People's Union capture 13 percent of the vote in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, although less than 2 percent of the state's population is of foreign origin.

Leaders from Germany's center-left opposition parties warn that the lack of integration of the country's minorities is a time bomb in terms of social problems. Together with human rights critics, they say a change in the citizenship law as well as an extension of more political rights to minorities should be a top priority for the next German parliament.

At the recent Green Party rally in Bad Soden near Frankfurt, there was an emotional discussion on the integration of foreigners. "I want to help decide who should live as a citizen next door to me, depending on how they behave," declared a white-haired man. He said foreigners should only become citizens if they were economically self-sufficient, patriotic, and did not support an imam in a foreign country.

The comment reflected Germans' widespread suspicion of Turkish and Bosnian immigrants, who are largely Muslim, due to fears that their Islamic heritage could undermine Germany's staunchly Christian culture.

Jewish leader Mr. Bubis, a member of the centrist Free Democratic Party, told the man his views were complete nonsense. "The decisive issue is: How do we deal with the foreigners here?" he said. "If we fence them out from the beginning, we can't expect them to embrace our culture. We need new citizenship laws."

A woman from Croatia who has lived in Germany for 24 years noted, "Just what is integration? I have gotten used to sauerkraut and have two German citizens at home, my sons, who served in the German Army. But I can't help decide whether to put a traffic light on my street because I can't vote."

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