When the law demands “integration”

Until now, immigration policy in Germany has followed a pathway defined by residency, employment, and citizenship restrictions. Put another way, policy has been concerned with 3 primary questions: Who is allowed to stay, who is allowed to work, and who is, ultimately, allowed to participate fully in the political process of the Federal Republic.

But something changed this past July, when German Parliament passed its first ever law mandating a particular type of immigrant and refugee integration.

A GSBTB volunteer getting “integrated”  with some senior citizens on a joint sewing project.

The new Integrationsgesetz mandates fulfillment of a German principle of social and economic assimilation. This principle has little precedent, in terms of a comprehensive law. There have been expectations and additions to existing legislation in the past, but never has there been governmental action specifically devoted to the question of whether or not newcomers have found ways to fit in. And never has this governmental action been tied to sanctions, if benchmarks and timelines aren’t met.

The new law measures the ability of newcomers to fare well on the basis of language and employment, with respect to natives: They are to learn German, well, within 5 years and become economically self-sufficient as soon as possible. Welfare and other subsidies are tethered to employment programs. Specific to refugees, asylum applicants awaiting refugee status will be recruited for low-paying (1 euro/hour) jobs as soon as they are registered with the authorities, no matter the qualifications they bring with them from their home countries.

This approach is known as the welfare-to-work model, popularized by the Clinton administration in the U.S. and implemented in Germany since 2002 in the form of the Hartz-IV reforms. Research has shown that welfare-to-work programs, rather than re-training newcomers or supporting them while they seek jobs for which they are actually qualified, have serious long-term consequences. Stagnation and even regression is the word.

The integration law presupposes and, indeed, requires a “help yourself” attitude. This was precisely the message of the German austerity program of Hartz-IV, forever unpopular among the Left. This correlation between the new integration program and austerity language has led some members of German Parliament to send up flares.

The economist and Green Party representative Brigitte Pothmar criticized the intent and scope of the law specifically on the point of low-wage jobs: “According to its supporters’ own language, the legislature plans to spend 3 million euros on ridding refugees of boredom. But refugees don’t need occupational therapy. They want to learn and they want to actually get to work!”

Volunteers teaching refugee women how to ride bicycles – another way to get “integrated” into life in Berlin.

A similar critique was wielded by the Left Party representative Sabine Zimmerman, calling the law exclusionary at best. In terms of the economy, in particular, “This type of work [1 euro jobs] does not provide any opportunity to earn qualifications or to truly learn the language. In effect, it makes it even harder for real opportunities to come about.”

But it is not only the language of self-help and the threat of stagnation that these parliamentary representatives are worried about. If newcomers are unable to reach German proficiency in 5 years’ time or are unable to maintain employment, residency permits will not be renewed or will be outright denied. Other sanctions, such as restrictions on housing and overall mobility, also apply.

Likewise, those who prove to be “exceptionally well integrated,” according to the law’s system of measurement, will be granted the privilege of ungarnered residency within 5 years. There is a carrot at the end of the integration stick. And it looks a lot like survival.

The media’s response to the new integration law, as well as that of practitioners in the field, has been swift and strident, criticizing the way in which the word “integration” is tied to fundamentals like housing and residency permits. The well-respected German weekly die Zeit reported the law’s final drafting with the headline “Work better, fail quicker.” Another well-respected paper, the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, printed the news with the headline “An integration law that doesn’t deserve its name.”

This new law does intend to simplify and expedite the processing of the many asylum applications Germany continues to receive. For many of the law’s opponents, this addition of asylum proceeding reform was reason enough to support the law. Yet it may be more restrictive than helpful to those applying for asylum. The headline provided by the right-leaning daily die Welt for the new law is telling: “Asylum-seekers can stay only under one condition.”

A mix of German-born and newcomer boys celebrate their win at football, the German national sport. GSBTB volunteers support this activity with our partner, Buntkickgut.

Value Judgement

What does this have to do with the title of this article, the value of a foreign life?

Any subject of law, citizen or not, is assigned a particular value, as reflected in and by society. Law most often protects the value of the universal person in that it prevents harm and injustice within the scope of its jurisdiction, no matter the origin of said person. Natives cannot kill tourists or undocumented migrants, for example. This is still a crime.

But this goes both ways. Law is discerning, as are its makers. It can decide when and if certain protections or privileges are granted. In this act of exercising certain judgment, determining who is the recipient and who is not, a value judgement is passed. In the case of Germany’s new and unprecedented integration law, those who become German in the ways the law prescribes have value enough to stay. Those who fall short do not.

This value judgement is apparent in the language of the law itself, as well as in discussions surrounding it. One example is the usage of the word “integrationsunwillig“, meaning “unwilling to integrate.” Its counterpart, a noun, is Integrationsverweigerung, which takes a stronger tone: It means “refusal to integrate.” The subjects who exhibit these traits become subject to the sanctions mentioned above, likely to eventual deportation, thus forfeiture of assets, professional networks, and personal relationships in Germany.

This language makes clear assumptions about intent and character far more than it does about simply the state of things, of whether or not an individual has found him/_/herself to belong in their new home. “Unwilling” implies a flouting of both convention and the laws of the land. Cultural difference becomes cultural deviance within this frame, and those who do not fit in effectively become criminals.

The 143 Band from Afghanistan, and Luckless from New Zealand, both making a go of their music careers in Berlin. The two acts collaborated at a GSBTB team-up event. Photo: Kalle Kuikkaniemi.

The perceived understanding of integration behind this language of “unwilling” is most problematic in that it devalues the experience of the newcomer and abdicates the native of certain responsibilities by way of this process.

In other words, what of the many natives who will refuse to grant newcomers a job because of their last name, because of their fear of ISIS or simply of Islam?

What of the slow-moving bureaucracy that will prevent timely and efficient completion of an integration course, or of the notoriously unfriendly bureaucrats who will make registration for state-subsidized language courses or other training programs a painful and humiliating process?

Will the other side, at any point in this hypothetical pathway to official integration, be charged with an unwilling and outright difficult attitude?

The law, by default of its creation, values natives above foreigners. The answers to all the above questions will tend to err on the side of the native for this reason, and responsibility will continue to be a weight born by the weakest, the least valued. These are the immigrants, the asylum-seekers, and the refugees of today.

Germany has done so much good for the refugees of the world in this past year. This new law is an unfortunate development.

It is unfortunate that the integration law negates the complexity of human behavior and the ways in which human beings tend to respond to mechanisms of control. It is unfortunate that it transforms a once two-way street into a narrow, one-way turnpike, failing to recognize that tying belonging to an existential crisis is one sure way to create another type of crisis, one of protracted isolation and despair.

Refugees, expats, Germans, but all Berliners: the GSBTB Open Kitchen serving up Syrian and Sudanese delicacies at Markthalle Neun. Photo: Trish Lauren.

The Way Out

One does not become a part of a group by the force of policy, nor does one come to belong anywhere by resigning to segregation and the apathy of staying apart.

But I for one would rarely speak to my German neighbors if I didn’t feel that they would smile at me and wish to speak back. I am too sensitive of feeling unwanted and merely tolerated to make myself so vulnerable. In a similar way, if I were just learning German, I would rarely try to order in German on a busy bakery morning. I would rarely try to ask any questions of the service personnel at the mall. I would be too afraid of looking and feeling defeated for the stern face, the impatient twitch, and the impolite interruption that often peppers such interactions with shame.

And if I cannot imagine doing these things, as someone with no experience of war or traumatic displacement, I cannot imagine it for all newcomers from Syria and elsewhere – human beings who have suffered the extremes of suffering.

Laws may not be made for empathetic social responses, but norms are. In response to this new law, a little normative empathy is in order. Perhaps it is time not for sanctions but for a new German way of being with each other.

GSBTB Open Art Shelter provides a safe space for creativity, expression and just “being” together.

Small gestures like the prolific smile, like deferring to others in line at the grocery store, like trying (only trying!) to give directions in English, like waiting patiently for a German-learner to get out their form of a German sentence, will bring the empathy this law is so clearly lacking. If this happens, Syrians and Afghans and Eritreans and Kurds (etc) are made to feel that they are also people of value.

For anthropologists and sociologists, value is a social construct. It does not exist inherent to things, to substance. Rather it is made within a system of prioritizing this, disregarding that, supporting the success of this and punishing the success of that. Value is a trait or state to be expressed through norms, such as everyday behavior, as well as structures, such as divisions of labor or the segmentation of achievement within public schools*. It is a process, not a prescription.

We’ll see soon enough if the process can rise above this law.

*For more on this critical view of how and why value is created in society, see the well-known work of anthropologist David Graeber on the topic, available as a PDF here. You will never see prices and social priorities the same!

Kelly Miller is a founder of Collidoscope Berlin, where this article was first published.

The opening photo is by Kalle Kuikkaniemi.