Asylum Law Misses Point

German politicians made it harder for foreigners to enter, but they didn't do much to lessen the anger directed at foreigners already in the country.

ON Dec. 6, the Social Democratic opposition (SPD) agreed to join Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative-liberal coalition in tightening the constitutional provisions on political asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The Bundestag's plan to amend the Basic Law in January is an act of political capitulation vis-a-vis the right-wing extremists who have engaged in brutal assaults against foreigners since 1990.

Conservative motivations behind the pending amendment are clearly self-serving. Since 1987, Chancellor Kohl's coalition has seen its share of the vote undercut by hard-line parties to the right, notably the Republikaner and the Ger-man People's Union. They have successfully jumped the "5 percent" electoral hurdle, enabling them to assume seats in parliament not only in the conservative states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemburg, but also in the once-left/liberal bastions of Berlin and Bremen.

The SPD's motivations are less comprehensible. After all, Social Democrats themselves were forced into exile or suffered internment and death under the Nazis (and later under the Stalinists in East Germany). These were, in fact, the historical conditions that caused the founding mothers and fathers of the western fledgling democracy to incorporate an unqualified right to political asylum into the constitution in 1949.

Article 16 of the Basic Law asserts: "Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right to asylum." The proposed amendment seeks to outline in detail which "political grounds" shall allow a multitude of displaced persons from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to qualify as "truly persecuted." By specifying a list of countries judged to be in a state of war, officials will automatically discount applicants from other areas, or at least shift the burden of proof to individual refugees . The idea is to prevent the "undeserving" from entering Germany in the first place - analogous to current United States policy toward the Haitians.

At present, some 368,540 refugees have applied for asylum status this year (about 1,000 per day). Current law forbids foreigners from engaging in paid employment prior to determination of their status, requiring them to rely on welfare benefits for as long as two years, financed by ever more resentful taxpayers and local governments. Constitutional change will do nothing to eliminate the sources of antiforeigner feeling, nor will it ease the problems of mass migration deriving from the failure to institu te a bona fide immigration law.

The plan includes a token effort to limit the yearly influx of Aussiedler (more than 173,750 as of last month). These are the "German" descendants of persons displaced by World War II and subsequently dispersed across the territories of Silesia, Czechoslovakia, and the former Soviet Union.

The number of these "resettlers" who may legally enter via the open frontiers of Europe would be capped as of January 1993 at about 200,000.

According to Article 116 of the Basic Law, the antediluvian notion of blood, not birthplace, determines who is and who isn't a German citizen. Inheriting German citizenship is easy. Acquiring it through naturalization is extremely difficult; the process requires 15 years in residence (eight for minors), added to complicated criteria involving income, living space, personal health, and a substantial application fee for each member of the family.

These fine juridical distinctions (asylum seekers, citizen-resettlers, and garden-variety immigrants) will undoubtedly foster the careers of a whole new generation of lawyers in united Germany, but they are useless in weeding out the hate that has taken hold of a small yet violent segment of the country's youth. The self-proclaimed neo-Nazis who fire-bombed the home of Turkish residents on Molln, killing a grandmother and two children (one of whom had been born in Germany), did not inquire as to their re sidency status before causing their deaths in late November.

I still have faith in the principles of postwar German democracy, encouraged by waves of average citizens who display a sense of moral/historical responsibility and "constitutional patriotism" in their protests against the violence. I am rapidly losing faith in the country's most prominent politicians (irrespective of party affiliation) who refuse to use the institutions at their disposal to seek peaceful and positive responses to the right-wing outbursts, beginning with the re-education of youth.

My own participation in countless anti-nuclear/peace demonstrations in the FRG during the 1970s and 1980s taught me that all it takes to mobilize sufficient police, intelligence, and financial resources to "defend democracy" is political will among the leadership.

I am waiting for Chancellor Kohl and the members of the Bundestag to demonstrate their commitment to Article 1 of the Basic Law: "The dignity of man [and woman] shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority." Article 1 does not differentiate between "the deserving" and "the undeserving," between Germans and other human beings.

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