Non-Germans Challenge Old Views on Inclusion in Germany

No laws protect foreigners from often exclusionary and unfair practices

Cem zdemir is the German parliament's only Turkish-German member or only Anatolian Swabian, as he likes to be called. And he has a story to tell about his efforts to get car insurance: It illustrates the travails of the "new Germans" in a country that hasn't come to terms with the reality that it is an "immigration country."

Mr. zdemir called the insurance company and gave his name and particulars, and was told that the forms would be in the mail soon. They weren't.

He called back. He was told that he couldn't possibly have called before, because there was no record of his call in the computer. "I have to assume that when they heard my non-German name, they just did this," he says, miming someone laying down a pencil while pretending to be taking down the information.

Shortly after his election to parliament, he tried again, this time on his official stationery. And this time he got an answer: "They gave me all the insurance I wanted, and even some I didn't want."

In the United States, he might have had grounds for a lawsuit. But in a country that refuses to acknowledge that it has "immigrants," there is no antidiscrimination law to protect immigrants and others who may be perceived as such.

The German policy - or lack thereof - on immigration shows how the terms of a public debate determine the substance of that debate. Ask an official about immigration policy, and the answer is generally a blank look and the assertion, "Germany is not an immigration country."

This point of view is coming under challenge. zdemir's party, the Greens, has floated numerous immigration policy proposals, albeit as a small minority opposition party.

And as Germany pushes for the European Union to develop a common policy on immigration - it may have to modify its own. "It may be worth it, though," from Germany's point of view, says a senior diplomat in Brussels. "Germany will get some of what it wants, without the disadvantage of going it alone" in seeking strong action to keep foreigners out.

For the time being, though, Germany has three categories, each rooted in history, into which those wanting to settle here must try to fit. There are members of the "family" returning "home" - ethnic Germans coming "back" after years - or generations - in the former Soviet Union.

There are "invited guests" - the guest workers brought here in the 1960s, particularly from Yugoslavia and Turkey, to ease the labor shortages of the West German "economic miracle." And there are the human rights emergency cases, those seeking to avail themselves of Germany's traditionally very generous right of political asylum.

People simply seeking a better life in a new land do not fit into this classification scheme.

Challenges, however, are coming to these traditional views, not least because of the rise of a whole group of German-born "non-Germans," such as zdemir, typically the children of guest workers. Such people are typically referred to as Auslander, foreigners - despite the obvious absurdity of people being "foreigners" in their native land. A trio of Christian Democrats in parliament, have proposed legislation to make it easier for them to become German citizens.

But the implicit notion that these "new Germans" don't really "belong here" crops up repeatedly. The German government's response to a recent spate of violence by Kurds in Germany opposing the Turkish government was to look for ways to deport troublemakers more swiftly.

A Turkish-German law student in Berlin complains that Germany always seems to be trying to solve its problems by deporting them. "What will they do if they find out some of these troublemakers are of Huguenot background?" she asks, referring to the French Protestants that came to Germany in the 17th century. "Ship them back to France?"

Roger Willemson, a columnist in "Die Woche," noted recently how politicians across the spectrum are speaking of the Kurds' violence as an "abuse of Gastretcht." An ancient term to describe a community's moral responsibility to care for the "strangers within their gates" is being recast in the negative: Gastretcht is seen primarily as something that is being abused.

Karl-Heinz Paque, an economist at the Kiel Economic Institute, points out that Germany indeed saw itself as an "immigration country" earlier in time. "The Ruhr region grew with Polish workers that were brought in." Like many economists, he argues that with its aging population - 15 percent 65 or over - Germany needs immigrants' tax contributions to keep the social welfare system going. It will take a while for Germany to see itself as an immigration country again, he says, "But in 10 years, we'll have it."

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