The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

European Immigration Contortions

Update: Check out the shout out to Dr. Frist, plus other goodies!

Have no fear; the swampy silence was not due to any drainage or lack of inspiration. It’s just that I had an intense week with a family weekend visit to Berlin (and Potsdam), catching up with forlorn friends on that side of the pond, arranging things with a new subletter and finally hopping onto another flight across Le Grand Bleu. And then I had a great birthday in Olde Towne Alexandria with the lovely JJY, followed by a roof-top extravaganza in Adams Morgan.

The flight over was less exciting this time, no Tempelhof, no stops in Brussels and Chicago etc. But nowadays both Delta and Continental have direct flights from Berlin-Tegel, and it’s nice to board a plane and wind up on another continent without having to transfer. Other than a one-year experiment in 2000-1, Berlin has not had direct flight to the U.S. since way before the Wall fell. A provincial capital city indeed.

Anyway, just in time for my return, the Senate appears set to resume debate on immigration. And on Monday, President Bush is making yet another push for reform by giving a speech to the nation. Say what you will, but he sure ain’t listening to the populist nativists on this one. In fact, ol' Lou Dobbs (the angry anchorman) lambasted Bush on CNN the other night (click here).

I will return to the U.S. debate soon enough, but for now I should try to keep my promise by quickly referring to some goings-on in Euroland and beyond. From my daily immigration updates, it is crystal clear that many countries are pre-occupied with this thorny dilemma: from Canada, to South Africa and New Zealand. The latter is actually accepting “public submissions” ("so whatyathink, mate?") on this topic. Good or bad? Different at least!

These countries have the advantage – to varying degrees – of at least acknowledging some history of immigration. In Europe, however, there is major denial. So when anything immigration related comes up, it has the ring of some kind of belated revelation: “Why, what do you know, we have some immigration. Perhaps we need to change some laws, institutions…attitudes even.” Easier said than done: witness the German citizenship debate.

In 2000, thanks to the efforts of the freshly elected center-left government, Germany finally received a new nationality law – one to supersede the antiquated bloodline law from 1913! It was a compromise – necessary after the conservatives mounted a populist campaign against the original proposal, folks lined up to sign petitions against the proposed law or as some put it “where can I sign against the Turks?”

The compromise at least put Germany more or less in line with most countries, even if the absolute rejection of multiple citizenships was a nod to the xenophobes (and a sign of lacking confidence in the assimilatory nature of German society).

So how can there still be controversies and debates over six years later, anno 2006? Without getting all wonkish, I’ll just say it has to do with the German federal model in tandem with the usual hand-wringing. Each state has the right to administer the naturalization process, and thus 16 different models have emerged! This is unthinkable in both the federal U.S. or far more centrist Sweden and France. Nonetheless, the chance of getting a passport in southern Bavaria is much smaller than in northern Berlin. So the state governments – in the current anti-immigrant climate – decided to hash out a uniform model. Did somebody say lowest common denominator....

The Swamp has already reported on the kind of test that some crackpot politicians desired. Well, it didn’t come to this, but the reactionary forces did their best to add an oppressive/dissuasive element to what really should be a celebration. Now there will be a language test of sorts and helpful hints of WHAT NOT to do in Germany. It is sad, but ultimately not surprising, that such a test becomes the opposite of its supposed model in the US.

Here, the test has some tough questions (and the background check is no cake walk) but in the main, it emphasizes what is positive about the U.S., rubbing home what you CAN do. To repeat, the German approach appears to be emphasizing what you CANNOT do.

So, after decades of not really allowing people to become citizens (at best, there was an arbitrary procedure after a 15 year minimum wait) there is now a grudging tolerance, saying “Ok, if you must”. Nice.

During my Potsdam walk with my family, I literally stumbled upon an impromptu street memorial for a victim of racist violence. Before I got back, Ermyas Mulugeta was brutally attacked late one night. He almost died, but thankfully he is now no longer in critical condition. Instead, of dealing with the obvious, some officials played the Rodney King game. They emphasized that Ermyas was a big man and suggested that he started the fight. The fact that he was nearly dead at the time they uttered their Fristesque pronouncements (see below) seemed incidental to these idiots.

Later, the federal Interior Minister, the usually sanguine Wolfgang Schäuble, said that ‘blond hair and blue-eyed people' were also attacked. He was simply trying to relativize the whole thing ahead of the World Cup, worrying more about bad publicity than Ermyas life. And bad publicity is just what he got for saying something so asinine.

His counterpart in the state of Brandenburg, whose capital is Potsdam, the rarely reflective Jörg Schönbohm, also entered the fray by immediately casting doubt on any racist connection to the near murder. This despite the fact that on Ermyas voice-mail, he was making a call to his wife when he was attacked, racist slurs by two other voices can be heard.

Beating the odds, Ermyas actually became a German citizen. But in the reporting on this tragedy he is usually referred to as a black man, an Ethiopian who happens to possess a German passport etc. No one knew how assimilated he is, how he felt about his new home. People were worried about the World Cup. Activists are using the World Cup as a backdrop for all kinds of protests, but they mostly have to do with the 'evils of globalization'. There are other causes, my friends. Like realities in the place you live.

In my last post, I referred to a debate on the BBC. A member of a Black Germans organization was on the program because he had drawn a map of places not to go in the Berlin area if you weren’t white. World Cup folks were none too pleased. As I walked past the memorial in the middle of beautiful Potsdam on a sunny day, I wondered about that map and knew that this part of Potsdam was not on it.

As this AP piece emphasizes with brutal honesty, Europe is light years far from being able to deal with diversity. May the World Cup bring people to Germany, who will show folks there another way. I’ll be there.

More on the citizenship test this weekend, including a report from a ceremony in my part of Berlin.


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