The Immigration Battle: How the U.S. and Germany’s Respective Immigration Models Affect Immigrant Economic Participation

The Immigration Battle: How the U.S. and Germany’s Respective Immigration Models Affect Immigrant Economic Participation

The 2015 migrant crisis was one of the worst in global history. As a result of the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the unbearable living conditions in Eritrea, Kosovo, Yemen, and other nearby states, over 19.5 million refugees fled their native countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and arrived at Europe’s and Asia’s borders in unprecedented numbers. This sudden influx of people by both land and sea into the European Union (EU), Germany in particular, created deep divisions within society over how to best cope with the vast amount of incoming refugees, many of whom could not speak the local language and had no documented proof of their existence. In addition to Europe, the United States was another preferred destination for refugees, although reaching America’s borders was a greater logistical challenge. 

Nonetheless, with the highest immigration rate out of all 28 EU countries and another whose existence is essentially built on the backs of immigrants, Germany and the United States are two of the most salient states to examine when analyzing the impacts of the recent immigration crisis. Both of these respective nations pride themselves on their ability to serve as a beacon of hope, change, and freedom for all, and while they share a lot of the same immigration laws and issues, they also differ immensely in their long-term treatment and adjustment plans for immigrants. This disparity, despite their similar roles as two of the most popular migration destinations in the world, downplays the important role and potential impact that immigrants can have on the country that they move to, especially in the economic sector. Despite the popular claim that immigrants steal native jobs, the economic and employment sector is often analyzed to determine how prosperous a state is. As a result, understanding how immigrants are accepted into the employment division in Germany and the United States is crucial to understanding the complexities of the Western immigration debate.

Overview of American and German Immigration History

The United States

Often said to be a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has been a desirable destination for refugees and immigrants alike for hundreds of years due to its promises of change and the opportunity to achieve the coveted ‘American Dream.’ However, immigration to the United States really began to take flight when an 1850 census included questions regarding nativity for the first time. Data from that census revealed that there were 2.2 million immigrants residing in the United States at that time, making up about 10 percent of the overall population. In the next 60 years, those numbers increased as people began to leave Europe because of lack of employment, crop failure, rising taxes, and famine, with the majority coming from England, Ireland, and Germany. In that period of time, the percentage of foreign-born individuals in the United States stayed between 13 and 15 percent, eventually reaching a peak of 14.8 percent in 1890. 

However, the culmination of the Great Depression, World War II, and new restrictive immigration laws that only let in strictly northern and western Europeans significantly decreased the rate at which people were coming into the U.S., leading to a low of 9.6 million immigrants, or 4.7 percent of the total U.S. population in 1970. After 1970, the number of immigrants residing in the United States quickly increased as more and more people immigrated from Latin America and Asia primarily. New laws including the Immigration Act of 1965 that abolished admission quotas, paired with the nation’s growing economy, led to an all-time high of more than 44.4 million immigrants in the United States as of 2017.

Yet the United States is no stranger to restrictive immigration laws; in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act suspending the immigration of Chinese workers for ten years, and in 1892, it passed the Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States. Yet, despite those restrictions, which were later repealed, and the continuation of those social attitudes by many Americans today, the United States also made significant strides in welcoming immigrants and refugees alike in later years. The most notable ones were the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 which “authorized the admission of up to 205,000 non-quota immigrants fleeing Europe,” and the Refugee Act of 1980, which established a new system for “processing and admitting refugees from overseas” and formally defined a “refugee” as “any person… who is unable or unwilling to return to [a] country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.”

Nonetheless, since the September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda, there has been an increased focus on immigration, specifically on immigrants from the MENA region, as well as calls for a return to more restrictive immigration laws. During his 2016 presidential campaign and throughout his presidency, President Donald Trump continuously pushed for a crackdown on illegal immigration by enacting the ‘Muslim ban,’ which has been shot down in many states for being unconstitutional, and building a wall at the southern border. President Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric is primarily targeted towards Mexicans and Muslims, although he recently called for increased visa restrictions on Chinese citizens as well. This rhetoric, although in opposition to the country’s global role as a beacon of hope and freedom, is strikingly similar to the country’s anti-immigrant behavior from over a hundred years ago.


Whereas the United States faced an unprecedented influx of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, Germany battled the opposite; between 1820 and 1920, as a result of war, famine, and political upheaval, around 6 million Germans left their home country in search of opportunity. However, around 1890 the emigration rate slowed down considerably as the German Empire entered a period of industrialization, attracting both those who had left as well as foreign workers who saw the potential to make a big profit in the newfound coal and steel industries. 

Yet while Germany was a country made up of immigrants, it was not a country whose society was very welcoming towards those who were foreign-born. In fact, xenophobic attitudes manifested themselves drastically in the 1920s under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party who advocated for the creation of a “pure” and “superior” German race, who he referred to as the “Aryan race.” This translated into nationalistic and anti-Semitic world views and a strong hatred for those who were neither German nor white. This anti-immigrant behavior later manifested itself into a 1973 government act known as the “Recruitment Ban”; this ban essentially ended the “era of foreign labor recruitment” of “guest workers” to West Germany and prevented them from entering the country from states who were not part of the European Economic Community at the time. Post-1973, immigration rates in Germany actually increased when the Soviet Union fell and the situation in Yugoslavia turned bloody and violent. Yet with the new influx of immigrants, xenophobic behavior also grew and mob violence broke out across many Germany cities and towns. Another significant anti-immigrant act was also passed in 2005 and became known as The Immigration Act or the Residence Act; this act essentially established Germany as a “country of immigration” with a legal duty towards integration. Having experienced the extremist views under Hitler, this fundamentally changed the way in which Germany presented itself in the international community as an immigrant ally.

Since joining as a member of the EU in 1957, Germany has become the second most popular migration destination in the EU after the United Kingdom, with approximately 15.96 million immigrants living in the country by 2011, amounting to about 19 percent of the population. Yet with the 2015 migrant crisis and the influx of migrants from the Middle East in particular, the population in Germany rose to 82.2 million people, an increase of 978,000 or 1.2 percent. In that same year, immigration to Germany totaled 2.14 million people, a 46 percent increase from 2014. As a response to the immense wave of immigrants fleeing the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an open border migration policy that would allow Germany to welcome those from primarily Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. While Merkel was alone in this decision and her popularity levels dropped significantly, immigration to Germany in recent years has slowed considerably, with most individuals originating from Turkey and Poland.

The United States: Geared Towards Permanent Residency

At present, the current discourse among scholars in the field of immigration is that the American immigration system is more exclusionary and geared toward permanent residency. For those immigrating to the United States, the process to become a U.S. citizen can be done one of four different ways: acquiring citizenship by birth, acquisition, derivation, or naturalization. Immigrants also have the option of obtaining a Green Card or a Permanent Resident Card, which would allow them to permanently live and work in the United States. While the process to become a U.S. citizen is a long and difficult one, it is a process and a system that is designed to grant someone permanent residency and not simply a temporary stay. While the United States does offer temporary work, school, and travel visas, those have a time limit, and after a certain amount of time, the individual must return to their home country unless they choose to overstay their visa and risk deportation. Obtaining permanent residency is the only way to live in the United States in the long-run without facing potential repercussions with immigration authorities.

Furthermore, the United States’s immigration system has an exclusionary design which is made more difficult due to the length of time that it takes to become a U.S. citizen, as well as the necessary documented proof and other government obstacles that must be overcome. The citizenship process tends to be a long and arduous one if citizenship by birth is not an option, and much like the vetting process for refugees, it can take up to 18-24 months including an array of comprehensive interviews and security checks that are completed by the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The entirety of this process first includes getting sponsored by a U.S. citizen, be it a relative or an employer. To even be considered for an immigrant visa, the immigrant must be sponsored, which then leads to the submission of a petition for citizenship. After the petition is filed, the immigrant must pay processing fees, submit financial and supporting documents, and go through an interview; if the immigrant passes the interview, he or she will then be granted their immigrant visa and legally be allowed to enter the United States. This process is exclusionary in nature because many immigrants either do not have the necessary documentation and proof of their existence, do not have the financial means to pay the processing fees, and/or do not have someone residing in the U.S. that will sponsor their visa. As a result, only a fraction of immigrants applying for visas are accepted.

Additionally, despite immigration being one of the most salient issues a country can face, misperceptions still persist, especially regarding how immigration affects a country’s economy and workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. labor force, defined by the BLS as “all people age 16 and older who are classified as either employed and unemployed,” was approximately 160 million people in January 2018. There is also the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR), which is the percentage of people in the labor force who are either working or actively looking for work. Out of that 160 million in the labor force, immigrant laborers, mostly from Latin America, make up a record high of 17 percent as of 2019, amounting to roughly 27,200,000 people. With 2019, the economy is said to be on track to have the same success as it did in 2018, where output increased by $560 billion and grew by 3.1 percent.

Yet irregardless of the aforementioned data, many immigration critics argue that immigrants, regardless of their legal status or the percentage that they hold in the labor force, “steal American jobs” and “hurt the American economy.” President Trump is one such proponent of this belief; in November 2018, he stated that “Illegal immigration hurts American workers, burdens American taxpayers, and undermines public safety” in addition to them “taking precious resources away from the poorest Americans who need them most.'' However, while many stand behind that belief, the data reveals that the U.S. economy relies heavily on immigrant laborers and foreign-born workers in the labor force to contribute to national economic growth. A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.” Furthermore, the report revealed that second generation immigrants are “among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors” in the country, as they contribute around $1,700 annually per person. That data, paired with the fact that there has been a recent increase in more educated immigrants, demonstrates how immigrants are and will continue to be economically beneficial.

The immigrant assimilation process into the economic and employment sector is also aided by the infusion of their native cultures and the establishment of self-made enterprises or businesses, which assists with urban revitalization. While the popular claim is that immigrants steal jobs that are meant for American workers, many immigrants do not have the proper documentation, experience, or language skills to work in high-paying positions. In those cases, they often resort to working the jobs that American citizens do not want, particularly in the fast food and agricultural sectors, as well as many manual labor positions. The impact of immigrant work is seen by their ability to transform “desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods” by increasing the local population, expanding the tax base by setting up their own businesses, and bringing in more customers for both their own companies and domestic companies. The establishment of a business that hosts elements of the owners native culture not only normalizes that culture in an American context, but it draws in people and customers. For example, the beloved Chinatown sector that is found in many urban cities across the country, such as San Francisco and Chicago, is a product of Chinese immigration in the 19th century when Chinese-Americans wished to preserve their culture and surround themselves with similar people. In fact, despite gentrification efforts in many cities, Chinatown continues to survive on its promise of a strong restaurant culture with unique ethnic food.

All in all, while a large percentage of Americans may vehemently disagree, admitting immigrants and foreign-born workers into the country is an economically beneficial decision, regardless of their legal status. Now while there is also a link between immigration and crime rates, which is an aspect of the immigration debate that fuels anti-immigrant supporters, the overarching takeaway, as seen previously by the data presented, is that immigrants are helpful contributors to the U.S. economy. Without foreign-born workers, the United States’ labor force would decrease by 17 percent, amounting to a loss of over 27,000,000 workers. This would significantly damage the U.S. economy, potentially destroy certain industries that are immigrant-based and fun, and decrease the overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or the amount of economic activity within the country per year. While immigrants are not essential to the economic sector, the United States is much better off with the continued employment of foreign-born workers. 

Germany: Geared Towards Temporary Workers

In contrast to the United States, Germany’s immigration model is focused more on the temporary entry of foreign workers rather than the acquisition of permanent residents. However, much like the process to become a U.S. citizen, receiving admission to live or work in Germany is also a lengthy affair and has strict requirements that must be met. Admission into the country is further complicated by the fact that Germany is part of the EU, so there are different requirements depending on the status of the immigrant. If the applicant is a non-EU citizen, immigration is dependant on their skill level, as only those who are skilled or highly educated, as well as their family members, are accepted into the country. If the non-EU applicant plans to stay more than 90 days, then they must obtain a Residence Permit, otherwise their short-term visa will expire. 

There is also the option of getting an EU Blue Card, which is a temporary residence permit lasting up to four years, as well as a work permit for those who are highly-qualified as employees. The requirements for that particular permit include holding a college degree and making a salary of EUR 47,600 or more a year. Yet as of recent, those restrictions for non-EU citizens have lessened under a new German immigration act that permits non-EU citizens to work in the country if they have the “qualified vocational training” as well as an “employment contract.” However, if the immigrant in question is an EU citizen, then the process is significantly simplified. The applicant, if from one of the other 27 EU states or Switzerland, must only have a valid passport to enter Germany, but is required to change their address to match their new one in Germany within three months of their arrival. Otherwise, no extra steps are required for EU citizens.

Nonetheless, participating in the German economic and employment sector is not too difficult, no matter if the immigrant is an EU citizen or not, but it does hold more stringent requirements than the United States. Foreign-born workers in Germany must first have a job offer and then get a temporary residence permit which authorizes them to be in the country for work purposes. Next, immigrants tend to need to meet eligibility standards, such as being able to speak German and getting the approval to work that particular job by the Federal Employment Agency. Upon completion of all of that, the immigrant is then able to apply for a Residence Permit, with the length of stay determined by the immigrant’s employer.

This overall focus on the skill level and educational background of the immigrant relates back to the fact that the German immigration system is designed in a way that encourages the temporary entry of foreign workers rather than the acquisition of permanent residents. Because German birth rates significantly declined in the 19th century as well as most recently in 2015, leading to vacancies in jobs across the economic sector, Germany has actively tried to recruit foreign-born workers to fill those empty positions. Most of the individuals immigrating to Germany now are highly skilled and well-educated, and are taking jobs in high-paying positions where they can utilize their academic backgrounds.

The focus on temporary workers rather than permanent residents does not seem to have damaged Germany’s economy too much. In fact, with the recent surge of immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa in particular, Germany has experienced an economic boom. Data collected by the EU’s annual labor-force survey, which analyzes participation, employment, and unemployment rates for several demographics, reveals that between 2007 and 2017, the foreign-born employment rate in Germany for individuals aged 20 to 64 rose by 8 percent, increasing from 62 to 70 percent. Immigrants are not only coming to Germany in large numbers, but they are actively contributing to the economy by seeking jobs and earning an income. However, despite their economic success, immigration integration is not seamless and without complications. Created in 2005, the German government has utilized a nine-month integration course that attempts to “expedite the assimilation of approved asylees” and aid them in obtaining “needed linguistic skills, as well as softer cultural skills and understanding.” Because one of the requirements for a legal Residence Permit include the ability to speak the local language, that being German, this integration course assists with the acceleration of employment efforts.

Yet it is not just immigrants from other countries that have boosted the German economy. According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), intra-migrants from other EU states have boosted Germany’s GDP growth by approximately 0.2 percent every year from 2011 to 2016. Since 2011, about 10 million immigrants have entered Germany, half of them coming from other places in the EU. With the influx of migrants, the labor participation rate has increased, with data showing that EU migrants participate more in the economy than German natives. In 2017, employment rates for native Germans was 70.6 percent while their immigrant counterparts was 74.6 percent. Because their focus is on temporary workers, migrants head to Germany with the primary objective of finding a job and making money. Per Marius Clemens, an economic researcher at DIW Berlin, “Germany’s GDP would have grown by 1.2 percent instead of 1.5 percent in 2015” had it not been for EU immigration rates, therefore showing that “EU immigration has made-and continues to make-a considerable contribution to the economy.”

Irregardless, while both the United States and Germany are both desirable destinations by immigrants and are two countries that not only share a history of immigration, but are also facing a large influx of immigrants in the present day, neither of their immigration models is without fault. Whichever model is deemed the “better one” is based entirely off of the immigrants’ objective purpose. If the applicant wishes to become a permanent resident in the United States, then it is advisable that they not only be prepared to endure a long and arduous application and screening process, but that they steel themselves against the awaiting xenophobic attitudes and anti-immigrant rhetoric that is perpetuated by many American citizens. However, if the applicant wishes to find work in an environment that has a less strict process (to a degree), then Germany’s immigration model would be the better option.

Regarding immigrant participation in a nation’s economic sector, both the United States and Germany rely on foreign-born workers to boost their economy and contribute to economic growth. In these two respective countries, immigrant laborers and immigrant-owned businesses are invaluable in their contributions to the national economy. The overall participation process for an immigrant in either of these states is a long process, as to be expected, but once admitted into the country on a permanent or temporary basis, there are numerous opportunities for an individual to participate in the economic and employment sector and contribute to the national economy.

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