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A lesson in immigration - How guest worker experiments transformed Europe

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Filed: Timeline

BERLIN -- Germany needed workers. Turks needed work.

So starting in 1961, the country invited Turkish ''guest workers" to come do the dirty jobs that Germans didn't want.

Only 7,000 ''gastarbeiter," as they were called, arrived that first year, a curiosity in a country where non-European faces were rare. Press flashbulbs popped. Politicians made speeches of welcome. Ordinary Germans watched, bemused.

Nobody grasped that the country -- and the continent, because neighboring nations soon undertook similar experiments -- was on the brink of a transformation whose effects are still reverberating across Europe.

In Berlin, which today ranks as the largest ''Turkish" city outside Turkey, falafel stands and kebab joints far outnumber eateries offering schnitzel. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, Islamic calls to prayer are as common as church chimes. In the raw-knuckled housing projects ringing Paris, graffiti are more likely to be scrawled in Arabic than in the language of Voltaire.

''The idea, originally, was that the foreign workers would stay for as long as economically necessary, then go home," said Michael Bommes, director of the Institute for Migration Research at Germany's Osnabrueck University. ''It didn't quite go like that."

As the US Congress wrestles with comprehensive immigration reform, one idea under discussion is a new program that would allow guest workers to enter the country, but not necessarily to stay on and become citizens.

In Germany, guest workers -- mostly poorly educated young men who were issued special visas allowing them entry for one or two years to take unskilled jobs -- helped the nation to become the third-richest in the world. The fabulous post-war prosperity of France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and other West European countries was also boosted by immigrant labor, mainly from Turkey and North Africa.

But more recently, as economic growth has slowed, swelling numbers of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa -- many of them arriving without any visas, or overstaying their visas and melting into the ethnic suburbs -- are being blamed for social stresses from urban blight to chaotic schools.

In the words of the late Swiss writer Max Frisch: ''We wanted workers, we got people."

Guest workers, unlike ordinary immigrants, were admitted under special jobs programs, and at least under the original plans, had no prospects of becoming citizens or permanent residents. Germany, like other European countries, at first refused even to allow them to bring families, hoping to discourage them from trying to put down roots. Later, Germany granted work stays of up to five years, and permitted wives and children to come along.

For decades, there were no efforts to integrate the newcomers. They were entitled to social benefits, but not citizenship. Their children could attend schools, but little effort was made to give them language skills. Far from a melting pot, Europe in the post-World War II era became the realm of ''parallel societies," in which native and immigrant populations occupied the same countries but shared little common ground.

Now, the presence of millions of largely unassimilated newcomers, coupled with terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, has triggered furious debates in Europe over national identity and the future of immigration.

France, in an about-face, has decided it no longer wants to admit the poorest of the poor, just skilled workers who speak fluent French and respect the ideals of secular democracy. Germany and the Netherlands have passed new laws that seem intended to thwart immigration from Islamic lands -- with potential newcomers queried about attitudes toward women's rights, Jews, and gays.

The only unskilled guest workers still recruited in large numbers are the migrant harvesters who perform the mostly seasonal stoop labor disdained even by the jobless in more affluent countries, including Germany and Britain.

But, in a major shift, even migrant workers these days are mostly recruited from within Europe -- tens of thousands of Poles, for instance, harvest Germany's famous white asparagus; pickers from Lithuania and Latvia pluck strawberries and other crops in Great Britain. Europe's guest worker programs were mostly scrapped during the recessions of the 1970s, but in a pattern reflecting the Hispanic flow into the United States, the movement of Muslims to Europe only accelerated. Those early guest workers routinely overstayed their one- or two-year permits, or lived from extension to extension, but faced scant risk of deportation unless they committed serious crimes.

Many of the first generation of workers bought houses or established small businesses, although usually confining themselves to immigrant enclaves. Their German-born children were registered as ''foreigners." They often spend years or even decades resolving their legal status.

While many European governments failed to seriously pursue integration, many Muslim immigrants were equally unwilling to shed their own languages and national identities.

''Neither side really thought hard about issues of citizenship, nationality, or integration because neither side truly expected the immigrants to stay," said Eren Uensal, a Berlin sociologist whose parents emigrated from Turkey in 1972.

''My mother insisted we were going to stay in Germany just long enough to earn money for a new sewing machine, to start a tailor shop back home," she said. ''Now we're into the third generation, and my mother still hasn't bought her sewing machine. Of course, that's because they made comfortable lives. No one really wanted to go home."

Legal workers were followed by waves of family members and illegal immigrants. In the 1960s, a few hundred thousand Muslims lived in Western Europe. Today, best estimates peg the number at more than 20 million -- including 3 million in Germany, mainly Turks; 5 million in France, mainly North African Arabs; 1.7 million in Britain; and 900,000 in Holland.

If the immigration controversy in the United States is really about Latinos, in Europe it's really about Muslims. And America's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration is spreading alarm among Muslim immigrants.

''It's saddening and frightening to see America, of all places, try to close its borders," said Cem Oezdemir, a member of the European parliament and one of few mainstream German politicians of Turkish heritage. ''How can Europe soothe its anxieties if the country that most symbolizes the success of integration closes its door against immigrants?"

Indeed, the future of the continent may be written on these darker-skinned faces thronging the streets. Birth rates in some European countries are plunging dramatically. Immigrants earning wages and paying taxes appear to represent the best chance the continent has of keeping its place in the world's economic front ranks.

Many of the original guest workers are now retired, enjoying the comfortable pensions that are the pride of Europe. But their children and their grandchildren are trapped between two worlds, too ''Europeanized" ever to return to the Middle East or North Africa, but lacking the language skills and education to forge ahead in their new countries.

The progeny of the early workers are filling schools -- and, critics say, jails -- as well as putting heavy demands on social services. The legal status of the offspring is murky, with many entitled to social services and health care without holding citizenship.

The Berlin borough of Neukoelln, one of Germany's largest immigrant enclaves, spends 60 percent of its budget on welfare payments. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the children in the district don't complete high school; only about half of immigrant youngsters speak German.

At the rough-and-tumble Ruetli vocational high school in Neukoelln, where 80 percent of students are of immigrant stock, not a single student from last year's graduating class went on to specialized training or an apprenticeship, the normal routes to decent-paying, blue-collar jobs.

''The parents took jobs that Germans didn't want -- and most of that first generation did all right," said Wolfgang Janzer, an artist who heads a project, Fusion, that seeks to channel the frustration of immigrant youngsters into artistic expression, such as sculpture, painting, and dance. ''But the young people don't even get the bad jobs. That's making them hopeless. How do you climb the social ladder when you can't even grab the bottom rung?"

http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2006/04/19/a_lesson_in_immigration/

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While many European governments failed to seriously pursue integration, many Muslim immigrants were equally unwilling to shed their own languages and national identities.

I think that is one of the biggest problems with immigration in general.


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Filed: AOS (apr) Country: Germany
Timeline

I think that is one of the biggest problems with immigration in general.

Why the U.S. won't declare English as the national language I've never understood.


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Filed: K-1 Visa Country: Philippines
Timeline

the US isn't integrated either.

i dated a filipina for a few years before the one i married and hardly ever were there any thing other than filipinos at family events large and small.

i have hispanic friends and same situation with them as well.

i work in tech and have seen east indians gather in their own space during lunch.

i dated a school teacher who said at lunch the kids are for the most part separated by culture. lunch time, in a school setting, is that one time of day where the kids can choose where they want to sit.

the US is famous for cultural events, but it is always indians making indian food, hispanics making hispanic food, etc. etc. they are celebrating their own culture and inviting others in. i think it is time for a change. indian should make hispanic food, japanese should make indian food, etc. to really learn about another culture is by seriously taking an active interest (purposely do something to show you understand another culture would be a lot more meaningful).




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Filed: Timeline
the US isn't integrated either.

i dated a filipina for a few years before the one i married and hardly ever were there any thing other than filipinos at family events large and small.

i have hispanic friends and same situation with them as well.

i work in tech and have seen east indians gather in their own space during lunch.

True story. And the biggest challenge of all. I suspect that we'd have half the debate we're having on immigration if we actually had integration.

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