Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Research & Seminars

contact us

[CGES-CIIP March 28, 1995]

Recent Immigration Developments in Germany:

Lessons and Implications for the US

a workshop sponsored by the

American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

and the

Comparative Immigration and Integration Program

of the University of California Center for German and European Studies

on Tuesday March 28, 1995

in Washington DC

About 8 percent of the populations of Germany and of the US are foreigners. Both countries are struggling to manage the influx of foreigners, integrate resident foreigners, and do both in an humane and durable fashion.

Several recent newspaper reports have suggested that the US could derive both positive and negative lessons from recent Germany experience in managing immigration and integration. Asylum applications fell from 438,000 in 1992 to about 130,000 in 1994, less than the US level. The number of foreign workers arriving under at least 5 distinct programs aimed at ensuring that such programs add workers to the labor force but not residents to the population is between 200,000 and 300,000.

Germany has a more generous social welfare system than the US and, at a time of planned US cutbacks in immigrant eligibility for welfare benefits, a review of the eligibility of foreigners for benefits may be useful. Finally, both Germany and the US are struggling to ensure that resident foreigners are integrated, so a review of German definitions of integration, and integration policies, should be illuminating.

The purpose of this workshop is to bring together 40 to 50 Washington area immigration policy experts to review recent immigration developments in Germany, and their implications for the current US immigration policy debate. The morning session will review what Germany has done to deal with asylum flows and foreign workers. Frank Loy, President of the German Marshall Fund, will provide a comparative perspective on immigration and integration issues at lunch. The afternoon session will feature presentations on the access of foreigners to tax-supported social services in Germany, and issues surrounding the integration of foreigners.

Attendance will be limited in order to maximize opportunities for discussion. German speakers will make 20 minute presentations, followed by 10 minute comments by discussants, and then 45 minutes of roundtable discussion. The major items of discussion will be summarized in Migration News.

Recent Immigration Developments in Germany:

Lessons and Implications for the US

9am Welcome- Jack Janes, Dieter Dettke, Philip Martin

9:15 am Immigration Flows-Dick Buxbaum, University of California-Berkeley Chair

Kay Hailbronner, Konstanz University,

Asylum Issues in Germany: Current Status and Outlook,

Discussant, David Martin, University of Virginia

10:15-10:30 Break

Elmar Honekopp, Research Institute of the German Employment Office

Germany's New Guestworkers

Discussant, Philip Martin, University of California-Davis

11:45 Lunch--Immigration and Integration Issues in Comparative Perspective, Frank Loy, President of the German Marshall Fund

1:00 pm Integration Issues, Dieter Dettke, The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Chair

Wolf-Dieter Narr, Free University of Berlin

Access of Foreigners to Welfare Services in Germany

Discussant, Michael Fix, Urban Institute

2:15pm Break

2:30pm Olaf Reerman, Integration Issues in Germany

Discussant, Ruth Ellen Wasem, Congressional Research Service

3:45 pm Adjourn


April 1, 1995

German Immigration 2

Asylum 2

Guest Workers 4

Welfare 6

Both Germany and the US include about 8 percent foreigners in their populations, both are worried about continuing immigration and the integration of resident foreigners, and both are searching for durable immigration and integration policies for the 21st century. Despite their different histories, policies, and goals, can the two countries learn from one another how to better manage migration and integration?

A March 28, 1995 conference in Washington DC on immigration and asylum challenges and choices in Germany and the US heard that that ìnon-immigrantî Germany has been affected by 5 waves of immigrants over the past 50 years. There are proportionately far more newcomers and their descendants living in Germany today who arrived since 1950 than in the US, which means that recent migration may have done more to reshape todayís non-immigrant Germany than it influenced the immigrant US.

Neither Germany nor the US is satisfied with the immigration and integration status quo but, in both countries, there is little agreement on answers to the three fundamental immigration questions: how many, from where, and in what status should newcomers arrive? Once immigrants arrive, a second set of questions arises: what should be done to integrate them?

Germany and the US offer an interesting comparison. Germany proclaims that it does not wish to become a country of immigration, but provides a relatively generous set of services to legal foreigners. The US, by contrast, basks in its immigrant heritage, but provides relatively few public services to help to integrate newcomers.

The fact that Germany provides services but not necessarily acceptance, while Americans accept immigrants but provide them with relatively few services, is not the only major difference. Non-immigrant Germany is currently one of the worldís major countries of immigration--newcomers--including foreigners, asylum seekers, and ethnic Germans--account for 100 percent of Germanyís population growth. In the US, by contrast, net immigration accounts for about one-third of population growth.

Managing migration is a tough but not impossible challenge facing industrial societies. As numbers rise and force action, leaders must be willing to confront the trade-offs inherent in deciding how to manage immigration and integration.

German Immigration

The two parts of Germany have been affected differently by migration. The former West Germany added 13 million net immigrants between 1950 and 1993, while the former East Germany lost 5 million residents because emigration exceeded immigration. The former West Germany included in 1993 about 4 in 5 Germans, and virtually all of the 7 million foreigners in Germany live in the former West Germany.

Germany is unlikely to remain a country in which foreigners arrive and remain foreigners. If a net 400,000 immigrants continued to arrive annually, Germany would in 2030 have a population of about 90 million, of whom 30 percent would be foreigners. Major cities such as Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich, which are now about one-quarter foreigners, would have populations that were half or more foreign. Since one in six foreigners in Germany today was born in Germany--1.2 million of 7 million--and half have lived in Germany for 10 or more years, the status quo of foreigners remaining foreigners is unlikely to continue.


Asylum involves foreigners arriving in a country and requesting temporary safe haven, or the chance to resettle. In all of the industrial democracies, the majority of asylum applications are rejected, so that separating genuine and false asylum applicants is a major objective of all asylum systems. However it is difficult to construct stable systems for making difficult decisions on who really faces persecution at home, and who is seeking economic opportunity.

Since there are no limits on the number of asylum applicants who can appear and request asylum, asylum has been called the ìwild cardî in immigration systems. When their numbers surge, as they did in 1992 in Germany to about 438,000, the cost of housing, feeding, and deciding asylum cases--some DM 6 to 8 billion or $4 to $5 billion--can equal contributions for development assistance(Germany provided $7 billionin ODA in 1991).

Both Germany and the US have committed themselves to the 1951 Geneva Convention, which obliges nations not to return to danger persons fleeing political persecution. However, each nation must decide for itself what constitutes political persecution.

The number of asylum applicants arriving in industrial countries rose sharply during the early 1990s, and it was widely agreed that many of those seeking asylum did not face an individual danger of political persecution in their country of origin. However, revamping systems that were designed to deal with a handful of individuals fleeing what were widely agreed to be repressive communist regimes, led to an ongoing debate over whether priority should go to adding resources to the current asylum system, or whether the access of aliens to asylum should be curtailed. Germany did both, while the US has so far primarily dealt with asylum by adding resources in order to speed up the processing of applications.

In 1992-93, there were widely reported attacks on foreigners Germany at a time when over 1000 foreigners daily were applying for asylum. Germany added resources to speed up the processing of asylum cases, and streamlined the system for determining whether a foreigner was being persecuted for political reasons in his country of citizenship, and needed the opportunity to start over in Germany.

The debatewas contentious in part because it highlighted disagreements over whether Germany should become a country of immigration. The immigration issue was not resolved explicitly, but Germany did preserve each individualís constitutional right to have her asylum application considered fully, but amendments prevented aliens who could have applied for asylum in another safe country from applying in Germany. The burden of proof was placed on applicants from ìsafe countries,î and more staff were hired to make decisions quickly, usually within 4 weeks.

Most observers consider the asylum reform a success. The number of asylum applicants fell by 3/4, reducing the state and local costs of housing and feeding asylum applicants. Romanians and Bulgarians learned that it was not worthwhile attempting to get to Germany and apply for asylum. There does not appear to be an offsetting increase in illegal immigration from countries that were sending asylum seekers.

The US during the 1980s also received an increasing number of applications from foreigners seeking asylum, and its system for deciding whether to grant asylum was rightly criticized for being too influenced by political considerations. For example, in a Latin American civil war, if the US government was supporting the government(El Salvador), few applicants received asylum, while most persons were recognized if they opposed governments such as that in Nicaragua.

In the early 1990s, the US faced a huge backlog of asylum applications--over 400,000 in 1995, representing over 700,000 individuals. The US does not provide welfare services to asylum applicants, but until January 1, 1995 granted work permits to asylum seekers so that they could support themselves while their applications were pending.

In January 1995, the US streamlined its system and added more staff to speed up asylum processing, in the hopes of removing the attraction of a work permit that seemed to be attracting some applicants. In the US today, an applicant applies to one of what will soon be 327 asylum officers (Germany has 900), and that asylum officer either grants asylum or refers the case to an immigration judge--a non-INS employee. Second, asylum applicants must now wait at least 180 days to work legally in the US.

Most US applicants for asylum enter the country illegally, or enter on e.g., a tourist visa, and then wait 4 to 6 months to apply for asylum. The INS hopes to make decisions on most applications within 6 months, so that few applicants wind up with legal permission to work. The US is also increasing the resources committed to removing aliens from the country--the budget has been augmented to permit the removal of 110,000 aliens in FY96. (In Germany, removing aliens is the responsibility of the Land or state government).

Both Germany and the US have invented in-between categories for aliens who are not eligible for asylum, but who nonetheless are not deported. The US and German acronyms--TPS, DED, ìtoleratedî--reflect the expectation that these aliens will eventually depart.

Mass asylum in industrial democracies is a 1980s-1990s phenomenon that has been confronted with more staff to decide cases quickly, and by restricting access to the system. How is the asylum system likely to evolve? Some believe that the concept of safe haven will replace resettlement. Under some notions, ALL persons requesting asylum would be offered safe haven, perhaps on extra-territorial islands. Then, as budgets permit, individual cases would be heard, and those deemed in need of resettlement would be granted the right to begin life anew.

Guest Workers

Germany is practically synonymous with Gastarbeiter--the notion that foreign workers can be added to the labor force without adding long-term residents to the population. However, German and other country experience has led to one of the few apparently universal aphorisms in migration--there is nothing more permanent than temporary workers.

Germany recruited guest workers between 1961 and 1973, when their number peaked at 2.6 million, making one in 8 workers a foreigner. Over the next 15 years, these foreign workers united their families in Germany, and second and third generation-foreigners joined their parents in the German work force.

The year 1989 ushered in a new era. The fall of the Berlin wall, German unification, and the demise of the USSR opened heretofore closed societies.

Germany responded to rising immigration pressures with 5 distinct foreign worker programs that involve some 350,000 foreigners, and add the equivalent of about 150,000 full-time equivalent workers to the German work force. However, unlike 1960s guest worker programs, 1990s foreign worker programs have a different purpose--to cope with micro rather than macro labor shortages, and to make inevitable migration legal. German foreign worker programs today also have different incentives for the workers involved; today the emphasis is on ensuring return to their countries of origin.

The most important program involves project-tied workers. Under this program, German firms sub-contract with foreign firms, and the foreign firm supplies the expertise and workers to complete a particular phase of a project. There were an average 40,000 project-tied foreign workers in Germany in 1994, down from 60,000 in 1992 because of scandals that involved German contractors using project-tied agreements as a backdoor guest worker program.

Most newly-arrived foreign workers are employed seasonally in Germany. A peak 150,000 seasonal foreign workers in 1994 contributed the equivalent of 40,000 FTE to the German labor force. Seasonal foreign workers can remain 90 days in Germany, and most are employed in agriculture, restauarnts, or construction. If the workers are employed less than 2 months, the workers and their employers do not have to pay social security taxes on their wages.

The third program is for border commuters from the Czech Republic and Poland. If local workers are not available in Germany within 50 km of these eastern borders, then employers can request permission from the German Employment Service to employ commuter workers at prevailing wages who can remain in Germany for up to 2 nights weekly.

The fourth program permits about 6000 young East Europeans to work and learn in Germany for up to 18 months, although evaluations indicate that Czechs, Poles, and other East Europeans learn few skills in Germany that they use at home. Finally, about 1000 nurses from the former Yugoslavia are allowed to work in Germany.

In both the US and Germany, there has been a shift in the rationale for temporary foreign worker programs. Instead of recruiting foreign workers to deal with macro or widespread labor shortages, most programs today are justified as a way to deal with a micro labor shortage, or to channel into legal programs inevitable and otherwise illegal migrants. However, most of the industrial democracies have heeded the advice of the OECD and deregulated their labor markets, and most today play less of a job-matching role in labor markets--the German ES matches about 35 percent of all job seekers and jobs, the US ES 3 to 4 percent--giving governments less credibility when considering employer requests for foreign workers.

Making credible determinations in micro labor markets is not the only challenge facing governments. Governments may also have to pay more attention to programs that admit foreigners for non-employment reasons, but which add foreign workers to the labor force. Two examples are foreign students(almost 500,000 in the US) and the cultural exchange program (200,000), which adds au pair foreigners to US households.


Gemini has one of the industrial worldís most comprehensive social welfare systems, and a 3-legged system of the federal, state, and non-profit organizations, including organizations that represent foreigners, delivers these benefits. Foreign workers originally did not receive many benefits, but some of those who arrived as asylum seekers, and many older unskilled foreign workers who lost their jobs, have become long-term welfare recipients. Just as the US welfare system has been called by some a system for Blacks, even though Blacks are less than 40 percent of all cash assistance recipients, so the German welfare system may wind up losing popular support if it appears to become a system for foreigners.

In the US, the effort to reduce welfare has been motivated by the search for cost savings and by the perception that minority immigrants are getting ìtoo manyî scarce benefits, from affirmative action to bilingual education to cash assistance. Illegal aliens are already barred from most US cash assistance programs except education and emergency health care, and legislation approved in March 1995 by the US House would remove 3/4 of the legal aliens now receiving federal cash assistance benefits from the rolls. Currently, 2/3 of the legal immigrants on welfare, and 3/4 of the costs, are in CA and NY.

A complete report is available from AICGS, 1400-16st St NW#420, Washington DC, 20036-2217, fax 202-265-9531.