Monday, June 22, 2009

Germany, immigration, and walls.....

On June 11, I went to speak in Berlin about Enrique’s Journey and immigration at a conference that looked in part at family issues and migrants. There are many women who have come to work in Germany from Romania and Poland. They come to work in eldercare or cleaning, and often leave their children behind. The more I travel, the more I see how this is a growing worldwide phenomenon of women migrating to work and leaving their children behind.

Germany and the U.S. in recent decades have both been top destinations for immigrants. Germany has seen its foreign-born population surge from 1.2% in 1960 to 9% today. Compared to the U.S., a greater proportion of Germany’s migrants are legal. As a member of the European Union, Germany allows migrants from most of the EU’s 27 member countries to work within its borders legally.

In some ways, Germany has handled immigration in different ways than the U.S. It has traditionally been more resistant to newcomers. For example, until 2000, it did not automatically grant citizenship to children born in Germany whose parents were from other countries. Now, children born in Germany automatically become citizens if one parent has been a legal resident for at least eight years. Until 2000, these children were treated as foreigners in a legal sense.

Still, like the U.S., Germany welcomed in huge numbers of migrants during strong economic times when laborers were needed (guest workers from Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Yugoslavia, and later Turkey in the 1950s, 60s and up until 1973.) And it has been less welcoming in times of economic contraction. Like the U.S., Germany brought guest workers in expecting them to go home after one or two year contracts. Like the U.S., many of those guest workers overstayed their contracts and never went home. (In 1983 Germany offered them economic incentives to leave, but few did).

Some Germans say these immigrants do jobs Germans don’t want to do, and that with very low birthrates (most Germans have one child) migrants are needed to keep Germany’s population from declining.

Yet there is also a strong anti-immigrant movement in Germany, and heated discussions about the lack of integration by the country’s huge Turkish population, particularly among older generations born in Turkey. Two thirds of Turks keep their own nationality, and only 1 in 20 marry a non-Turk. In Stuttgart, the government has developed model programs to try and better integrate migrants.

One of the most interesting things about the visit was to see the Berlin wall.

I often say that the only wall that has seemingly worked to halt migration was the Berlin wall (it was up between 1961 and 1989). Even the Great Wall of China didn’t keep out Mongol nomads, which was its original intent. To “work” you need shoot to kill orders, which is what made the Berlin wall so effective. And yet during those years some 400,000 people migrated from East to West Germany. Several hundred were killed, but many more got out.

It was fascinating to see the remnants of the wall. Before, in some parts of Berlin, there were three walls. If you got past one, you still had to get past the others. In between the three walls there were guard dog runs, watchtowers with snipers, and minefields. Over the years, the East Germans perfected the wall until it was nearly impenetrable.

Here are photos I took of portions of the wall that remain and a watchtower.

The other fascinating thing to see as an author was Bebel plaza, in front of Humbolt University in Berlin, where Hitler had tens of thousands of books deemed "un-German" burned in a huge bonfire in 1933. It reminded me of a terrible day in the 1970s when I was a teenager in Argentina. The so-called "Dirty War" was beginning in that country. The military would ultimately "disappear" tens of thousands of people in Argentina. I remember in an abundance of caution joining my mother as we burned books in our backyard that might be deemed objectionable--Alice and Wonderland and books by Sigmund Freud. Standing in Bebel plaza reminded me of the role ignorance plays in repression.