PEGIDA, the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,” was gaining steam in Germany before I left to visit family in the US over the Christmas and New Year holidays. It was being thoroughly debated in the German press and counterprotested in German streets. I was somewhat surprised, however, when I first started seeing PEGIDA show up in US media. The world is watching what’s happening here.
For anyone unfamiliar, PEGIDA is a protest movement that has been demonstrating in the streets of some German cities for the past several weeks, especially in the East German city of Dresden. They are not a political party, and even if they were, national elections aren’t for another few years. Some of their demands will probably become softened and mainstreamed over time; they are too large of a movement to be ignored, and indeed, no one is ignoring them. To their credit, they are peaceful. If there have been incidents of violence or vandalism, then these haven’t made the headlines.
But part of why they are alarming is because they are largely made up of people who have the least amount of actual familiarity with what they are protesting against. Dresden has much smaller percentages of immigrants and Muslims than most other German cities, so many critics of PEGIDA reach the conclusion that its sympathizers are forming their opinions about immigration and Islam though the worst misinformation and most sensationalist media coverage of these communities. PEGIDA may speak to some legitimate concerns about wider German demographic changes and policies, but its roots are in populist fear and ignorance.
I’d like to illustrate a very specific example of that ignorance here. I am not a Muslim and do not wish to comment on debates centering around Islam in Europe–many more well-informed minds are already covering this. But I am an immigrant, and I do know a thing or two about what we go through. So when PEGIDA revealed a list of demands in Dresden last night, I was particularly annoyed to see this:
“The introduction of a right and responsibility of integration. This obligation, if truly fulfilled, will automatically assuage people’s fears about Islamization, foreign domination, and the loss of our culture.” (translation mine)
Here’s the thing.
Mandated integration classes have already been part of our immigration laws for about a decade.
It’s mostly language instruction (up to the B1 level) with a bunch of civics lumped in. In the end, participants have to pass a B1 language exam as well as the “Leben in Deutschland” (Life in Germany) test , which as it happens is the same test used in naturalization proceedings. For the curious, that test is freely available all over the internet.
There are issues with the current integration classes that can’t be ignored. One is that large swaths of the immigrant population is exempt for various reasons–myself included, on the grounds that I already spoke German and was highly educated when I got here. Inter-EU migrants are also exempt. I would argue that these exemptions aren’t problems, per se, so let’s look at something that actually is a disaster:
The classes are massively underfunded. The state mandates that these classes take place, but they do not take responsibility for hiring permanent teachers to carry them out. As a result, these classes are often led by freelance teachers in private or semi-private institutions. They are highly qualified: by law, they must have degrees and training in the teaching of German as a Second Language. But they do not work under the same conditions that “normal” public school teachers do. They face low hourly wages instead of a respectable salary, have claim to no paid leave of any kind (including vacations, family leave, or sick leave), and receive no insurance or pension contributions from their employers. (My personal experience with these and other issues in freelance teaching can be read here.) If the state is to take integration seriously, it must respect those highly trained professionals who are in the trenches doing the actual, hard work of helping newcomers to this country learn our language, and that requires offering at least the same resources we already offer other, similarly qualified educators.
It must also make these classes free of charge for participants. There’s currently a small fee, about €1,20 per hour for most students. That sounds small, but the course is required to be 660 hours long, giving most people a total of €792. Yes, there are ways to get discounts, subsidies, and reimbursements, but the upfront price is a real burden. PEGIDA says it favors a “Canadian-style,” points-based immigration policy. That’s ironic, because Canada also offers not just one, but two forms of fee-free language instruction (French and English) for it its immigrants: Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC).
A separate issue is that a lot of people (>40%) fail these classes. What do you do with someone who tries their best and still fails? How many times should they be allowed to try again? Will you deport them with their spouse and kids, who may be citizens? What if this person is dyslexic? Illiterate? It’s very easy to say “one country, one standard,” but the reality is so much messier than that.
The flip side is that in some respects, the classes are actually too easy. B1 language competency is not fluency. You’ll still need an interpreter in many situations, and you won’t really enjoy untranslated German media or find it easy to make monolingual German friends. So do we raise the standards and let even more people fail?
Finally, just because someone passes a class doesn’t mean they make use of what they learned. If you’re living in an ethnic-linguistic enclave and you stop practicing German as soon as you pass your test because everyone around you speaks something else, language attrition will set in, and the current system does nothing to control for this. Similarly, you may know what you have to say on the civics test, but it doesn’t mean that you agree with it or believe in it. But the state cannot and should not control who you associate with, where you live, or what you think.
Yet I somehow feel that PEGIDA isn’t arguing for a solution to these complex problems if they’re arguing for the “introduction” of an integration scheme when we have already had one for a decade. It just says to me that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, and they don’t have reasonable, thoughtful, and legal solutions to these problems.
These issues are complicated. They’ll cost money to solve. A “deport everyone who fails” approach will land the government in court, where it will lose. Our government has to think complexly and open up the coffers if it’s going to take integration seriously.
And that’s not something PEGIDA seems to be even remotely aware of.