Make Newcomers German as Quickly as Possible

If Germany wants to learn from Canada's immigration model, it should think less about how to select immigrants and more about how to turn them, as quickly as possible, into Germans.


By Doug Saunders

Living in Canada for the past seven years, I found myself having lunch with a surprising number of members of Germany’s federal cabinet, from both governing parties. They weren’t visiting my country for the snow-covered vistas. Because I am an author and expert on migration, they had come to interrogate me, as well as any other Canadian politician, scholar or government official they could find, on the country’s immigration and refugee systems.

Now that I’m living in Germany, I can see why. Every few weeks, an article appears in some newspaper or magazine extoling the virtues of the “Canadian immigration model”, and the phrase comes up in the Bundestag with surprising frequency, expressed with both an envious regard for a country that appears comfortable with moderately high levels of immigration, and a recognition that Germany will also depend on immigration to maintain its economy in coming decades.

That phrase usually refers to Canada’s “points system,” an express-entry scheme, known today as Express Entry, in which permanent immigrants are accepted or rejected based on points tallied for any combination of advanced education, work experience, professional skills or language fluency (Australia also employs such a system). It ensures that newcomers to Canada are well prepared for the economy: about 60 percent of immigrants have university degrees, twice the rate of native-born Canadians.

In March 1, 2020, Germany will have a new immigration law, designed to make it easier for some higher-skilled non-European immigrants to gain entry and for some refugees to gain permanent residency. But it is unlikely to quell the obsession with the “Canadian model,” because its modest targets are unlikely to meet the economy’s demand for immigrants, and because it does not introduce a points-based system.

Let me offer some contrarian advice: I don’t think Germany has much to learn from Canadian immigration policies. The points system is of only marginal utility to a country in the Schengen Area, whose immigration is mainly European. There are better ways to recruit immigrants from outside Europe, and the new law is a start.

Instead, the real lessons of the Canadian model are not in the selection of immigrants, but in what happens to them after they are settled. Here, Germany has a lot to learn from Canada, and in fact Canada, whose system has some serious flaws, has a few things to learn from Germany.

In both countries, the most successful immigrants and refugees are those who arrive as full families, with the intention of becoming permanent citizens, and are attracted to the country by networks of previous immigrants from the same region who then assist them in their settlement and integration.

Both countries still think of immigrants as units of labour to be plugged into the workforce, whereas an increasing proportion of successful immigrants end up becoming employers themselves, as entrepreneurs and small-business owners. The Syrian refugees who arrived in the 2015–6 crisis are known to many Canadians mainly for the successful companies they have created.

One thing Germany ought to learn from Canada is the practice of giving immigrants and legitimate refugees a very fast pathway to full legal citizenship. Once accepted, immigrants to Canada gain permanent-resident status often within months, and are eligible to become full citizens after living in Canada for three years. Refugees are also allowed to become citizens three years after their claims are recognized as legitimate.

This is the core advantage of the Canadian system: It turns refugees (who are a relatively small proportion of the immigration system, and are usually sponsored by Canadian families) into regular economic immigrants very quickly, and it turns immigrants into full citizens fairly quickly. As a result, newcomers begin investing in their communities, starting businesses and participating in the cultural and political life of the country – that is, integrating – soon after arriving, and there are fewer rootless people of ambiguous status living in the country. Employers tend to hire immigrants whose permanent settlement seems assured.

Another is Canada’s focus on allowing entire families to immigrate. Four out of five immigrants to Canada are not the high-skilled, linguistically fluent primary “points system” immigrants, but the spouses and children they bring with them, or the other relatives they sponsor later. These family immigrants sometimes perform better in the economy than the primary “points” immigrants – in good part because the major labour shortages in Canada are often in semi-skilled or low-skilled fields.

Canada is far from perfect in this regard. A surprising proportion of its immigrants arrive on short-term working visas, which are inevitably extended for long periods. The current Canadian express-entry system is not as effective at keeping families together as earlier policies.

The last thing any country should want is to have a large population of unaccompanied single people with no prospect of citizenship – a lesson Germany learned the hard way in the wake of the 1960s Gastarbeiter program. Both countries could do more to focus more on the permanent settlement of families.

And Germany does some things better. The substantial up-front federal and state investment in housing, language and skills training for newcomers, and the large numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers who are able to enter Germany’s apprenticeship “dual system” and therefore start work immediately, means that Germany’s recent immigrants have an enviable rate of economic integration, as shown in recent studies by the OECD and the Bertelsmann-Stiftung. New immigrants to Canada, by contrast, are often left to their own devices and fall into low-income employment ill suited to their skills and education – the system instead places emphasis on the inevitable success of their Canadian-educated children.

If Germany wants to learn from Canada how to make immigrants less controversial and more successful, it should think less about how to select them and more about how to turn them, as quickly as possible, into Germans.


This article was first published in Die Welt.

Doug Saunders, a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the Canadian author of several books on migration and cities, including Arrival City: Die neue Völkerwanderung.