Transatlantic Immigration Reforms: Guest Workers

Like many countries Germany is still trying to solidify its immigration policy. Part of the continuing debate rests in how to better integrate former guest workers who helped build up the country in the 1960s and 70s. The United States has considered a similar guest worker program, and some of the lessons learned by Germany may signal how the US goes about its immigration reforms.

(Editor’s Note: This story was written in Germany, but subsequently produced and edited in the U.S.  It is a 12-minute profile of German and U.S. immigration policy, and past, focusing on guest worker programs.  The audio provided is from Deutsche Welle Radio’s “Insight.”)

There are many hubs of activity for Germany’s immigrant population. Many major cities like Cologne and Stuttgart have sizeable immigrant neighborhoods, especially those with large numbers of Turkish immigrants, who make up Germany’s largest minority.   But two neighborhoods seem to be mentioned in any conversation about Germany’s immigrant populations—Neu Koeln and Kreuzberg in Berlin .

Goecen Demiragli (left) guides a group of Jewish Americans around Kreuzberg as she tries to dispell misconceptions about her culture, and neighborhood.

Kreuzberg is a mix of cultures, though its Turkish residents are more noticeable.   The neighborhood was once dissected by the Berlin wall, but is now revitalizing itself as a place for multicultural restaurants, clubs and cafes.   Even with efforts to re-brand the area as a hip place to be, some negative opinions about Kreuzberg’s identity persist.

“I’m going to show you my Kreuzberg, because I was born here and grew up in this neighborhood,” says Goekcen Demiragli, a product of Germany’s guest worker program.  Her Turkish grandmother came to work in a sewing factory for a short period, but ended up living in Germany for more than 30 years.  

Demiragli gives Kreuzberg tours to local and international groups to try to improve the neighborhood’s image.

“It’s a project we started in 2001, because while people talk about Kreuzberg, we felt they never came to this neighborhood,” she says.

A Jewish American group listens to a talk about Islam, and German-Turkish citizens. They meet in a mosque, hidden away through a corridor from the main street.

On this day Demiragli shows a Jewish American group a mosque, traditional Turkish restaurant, and even a small farm built in the midst of towering apartment buildings.   Demiragli combines her tour with a visit to the Kreuzberg museum which shows the area’s diverse past—it hasn’t always been a purely “Turkish” neighborhood.  

But the issue of public perception of districts like Kreuzberg and Neu Koeln, and even perceptions of the Turkish community, are real sticking points for many in the immigrant community today.

Acceptance is hard to find

“We are not just Germans or just Turks, we are the best of both worlds,” says Bertan Boyacioglu, a college student studying economics in Berlin. He speaks four languages, including his native Turkish and German. He’s part of a movement of German youths with Turkish heritage who call themselves Deukisch: not quite German, and not quite Turkish. The Deukisch generation is trying to find its place in society after a guest worker program.

“We’re working hard to get this whole image thing correct,” he says. “It’s a very sad point when you open the daily newspaper, and at side one you see ‘Turkish guy shots down two men’ and everyone around you, your neighbors, come in like ‘What happened in your community’ and you’re like ‘I’m not really involved in that sort of thing.’

The Deukisch Youth are trying to find themselves in life after a guest worker program.

Boyacioglu sits in a large cafe in Berlin with friend Zeynep Balazümbül, whose grandparents came to Germany as guest workers. Balazümbül says many in the German Turkish community are having an identity crisis — they have a hard time trying to be accepted in Germany, and an equally difficult time in Turkey.

“Someone asked me where I’m from, and I said I’m German and she was like ‘Oh come on.’ If you have one person who tells you ‘Oh come on you’re not German’ that one bad experience is enough to just give up and say they just don’t want me,” she says.

Mixed expectations

Balazümbül is also a student; studying law. She says guest workers built up Germany, and the government had expected the workers to return home eventually.

“But we should not forget the migrants themselves often thought of themselves and their stay as very temporary,” says Thomas Faist, a professor of transnational relations and the sociology of development at Bielefeld University, in Germany.

“The guest worker programs started with an agreement that migrants should be employed at the same conditions as natives,” he says. “So there should be no difference in terms of social and work-related rights.  The readiness for migrants to take on jobs Germans didn’t want anymore was the main qualification.”

Bielefeld University, Germany

Using migrants to take jobs current residents don’t want anymore is not a tactic used only in Germany. In the United States, many proponents of guest worker programs use that reasoning as well.  

The comparisons in rhetoric ultimately led Faist to make a formal comparison of the U.S. and German immigrant communities. In 1996 Faist directly compared the children of Turkish immigrants in Germany with the children of Mexican immigrants in the US. Faist wanted to look at the similarities and struggles of both immigrant populations, especially in terms of labor.

“The risks involved are different,” he says. “The mode of exclusion in Germany has been unemployment.  The mode of exclusion in the US , even for immigrant youths, was not unemployment, but low wages.”

Faist looked at each country’s education and work placement systems to see if one set of immigrants was better off than the other. Germany has apprenticeship programs, where the US has community colleges or vocational schools. In Germany, Faist says, it’s very hard for an immigrant group to be fully accepted into society, and some could argue similar struggles exist for immigrants in the US .

“I also looked at ‘Do Mexicans, do Turks form a so-called underclass?’ That was not the case.  The young people I interviewed, most of them, the overwhelming majority still had hope for the future.  They were not in despair,” Faist says.

The study looked at legal immigrants in both countries–many of the Turkish Germans in his study participated in the country’s guest worker program.

But in looking at legal immigrants, Faist also realized a side effect of guest worker programs. He says as seen in Germany’s situation, workers lay down roots in the new land, start families, their children attend school, and often don’t want to leave their new home, and that is something the US would have to consider in any new immigration policy.

“There’s nothing more permanent than temporary labor.  If in the US the thinking is that with guest worker programs you can avoid illegal employment–well that’s nonsense,” he says, adding that Germany and other economies considering guest worker programs often overlook the human aspect to such programs.

Thomas Faist

“It really is true, that in the 1960s and still in the 1970s labor migrants were looked upon as labor power, not as fathers and mothers and children. It’s not labor migrants anymore it’s real people, with real needs,” he says.

One of the most candid and important observations of guest worker programs, for Faist, came from 20th century Swiss author and journalist Max Frisch, who said “We asked for workers, but we got people instead.” Faist says it’s that perspective of thinking of workers as only workers, which could cause problems in a society.

The view from the Valley of the Sun

In the U.S., Arizona is the front line of the immigration debate. And in Phoenix there is one man whose name seems to come up when a conversation turns to immigration. Salvador Reza calls himself a community organizer, others say he’s an immigrant advocate, probably best known for creating a day-laborer center in Phoenix and speaking out for immigrant rights. Though his actions and opinions focus on illegal immigration in the US, he says Germany’s guest worker program affected him deeply .

“We’re still fighting to be human. They’re called Auslanders in Germany, it’s like a dirty word, like illegal alien here,” Reza says. “In Europe at one time I admired them because they did allow guest workers. I met some of them when I was in Germany . I went to a German wedding and there were a couple of Turks passing through, and the German guys were already drunk and some of them got up and beat up the…the…Turks in the street. The same hate is going on with the Minutemen here.”

Reza there is referring to the Minutemen group: a band of Americans probably best known for sitting near the US-Mexico border in lawn chairs, and reporting illegal immigrants to the border patrol.

Though Reza’s experience witnessing the fight in Germany may have been an isolated incident, the event stuck in his mind. He says he sees similarities in how guest workers have been treated in Germany , and how Mexican immigrants are treated in the US .

“From 73 to 75 I was in the United States Air Force, and the way the Turkish were treated, the way the Italians were treated, and the way the Spanish were treated to me was the same way we were treated as braceros here in the United States,” he says. “That’s why I went to the University, I wanted to know why.”

Reza is a stocky man with glasses, a gray pony tail and mustache. He says Germany’s guest workers were like Mexican workers in the United States’ Bracero program, which for decades has brought laborers into the U.S. for agricultural work. Reza believes immigrants should be embraced by a society, and the foreign labor system should be more transparent, but also more clearly regulated.  

Some experts agree.

“We should get used to this pluralism,” says Barbara John, who was the commissioner for immigration and integration for the Berlin senate from 1981 to 2003. She says societies need immigrants for new ideas, and a new ethos, but there must also be a system for encouraging success among poorer communities.

“We lack incentives for migrants and not just migrants, but people with a poor education, to climb up the social ladder. That’s one of the difficulties of a welfare state,” she says.

Germany ‘s welfare system encourages a laissez faire attitude among families, she adds, because a person can make more money on welfare than by doing a low-paying job. She says the only way a guest worker program can work, is if the job is truly temporary.

“You can see it every day, you are picking tomatoes and so on.  And from the beginning you said three months and then it is over.  But if you make it for a longer time, for one year or two years I think it proved that it cannot work,” she says.

Turkish political and social identity are still issue today. The vandalised poster here says “Entrance for a free-thinking Turkey.”

John says seasonal agricultural work is a perfect example of work which requires temporary workers who leave a country once the work is completed— Germany ’s guest worker program was not agriculture based, though, and many workers were placed in factories which don’t run seasonally.

No easy answers

Even with the experience of a guest worker program, Germany ’s past may not help the US make smarter policy decisions. John thinks the answer to the foreign labor question rests in specialized visas like the one the US has now. But even with further regulation, John says there’s no fool-proof plan.

“It’s always difficult.  There’s no immigration policy without any risk of course.  You always have some risk,” John says.

“There’s a good thing, and a bad thing when it comes to needing workers and wanting workers,” says Dawn McLaren, a Washington, D.C.-based research economist specializing in immigration. She says workers are not machines, and they need housing, food, and other social amenities. She points to Germany having a substantial social welfare infrastructure, giving guest workers fewer reasons to leave.

“The idea of a guest worker program where you come in here and work, and just be invisible and like ‘Don’t touch our land and don’t demand our housing’ that’s not going to happen, especially if you have an environment and society that is friendly to people. Someone who’s there temporarily is not going to have the same loyalty, the same care for the place where they live.” McLaren says temporary work arrangements also don’t encourage workers to feel as invested in their new communities.

“But once someone is integrated into the community they’re going to want to make sure their children are not worse off because of things they are doing,” she says.

Most experts and observers agree instituting a guest worker program successfully is a difficult task. Some say using temporary foreign labor can only function if everyone knows what a program will entail.  

Workers need to know it’s okay to return to their home countries, and potentially return as guest workers again in the future, should work be available.

“If you want to legitimize foreign labor, migrant labor a guest worker program would not be a bad thing,” says Thomas Faist in Bielefeld. “However look at the German situation in the 1960s and early 70s.  12 million came in this period, and 4 million stayed.  Is that success?  Is that failure?  The majority left.”

Meanwhile, German lawmakers are working on improving the system in place for attracting skilled foreign labor by way of visa programs, and other reforms. But lawmakers are also still trying to integrate former guest workers into society, and deciding how to manage future immigrants who need to come to the country to fill the gap left by older people reaching retirement age.

The immigration debate in the U.S. is advancing no better than in Germany. U.S. lawmakers are still at a stalemate on the issues of border security, foreign labor, and illegal immigration.  Work is continuing on a massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

But lawmakers are also gridlocked on how to deal with an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the US illegally. Lawmakers in both Germany and the United States agree immigration issues are some of the most important each country needs to address. 

But until each country finds common ground in the immigration debate, nothing will change, and the status quo will continue.

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