Germany debates immigration law
BERLIN, Germany -- A landmark immigration bill being considered by Germany has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle.
The lower house of parliament voted 321-225 on Friday, with 41 abstentions, for the bill.
The government says it will admit immigrants needed by German industry to offset its aging population and avert a skills shortage
But conservatives complain that it could worsen the country's already high unemployment.
Its next big test comes on March 22 when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will need opposition support to get the bill through the upper house.
"We're not facing the alternatives of having immigration or not having immigration," Schroeder told parliament. "We've had it for decades.
"The real choice is: do we want to limit immigration meaningfully with a law, defend our economic interests and fulfil our humanitarian obligations, or do we leave things as they are?"
Michael Glos, a spokesman for Schroeder's election challenger, Edmund Stoiber, insisted the bill aimed to "set the course to transform Germany into a multicultural country of immigration -- that won't be done with us."
Friedrich Merz, the opposition Christian Democrats' parliamentary leader, said: "Such a law opens the way for still higher immigration into the labor market -- with 4.3 million jobless, that's completely the wrong signal at this point.
"Such a law won't improve integration, but worsen it."
Despite some political opposition, Interior Minister Otto Schily said the bill has industry and church backing.
"We mustn't waste this historic chance, because it won't come around again so quickly," he said.
It is estimated there are 7.3 million legal foreign residents in Germany (about nine percent of the population).
Despite rising unemployment, a government-appointed commission found that Germany needs tens of thousands of new migrants each year to supplement its aging, shrinking population.
However Schroeder has made reducing unemployment to 3.5 million a priority during his term in office.
In his New Year's message he told Germans that preserving and creating jobs would be his "most urgent priority" for 2002.
He did agree to some concessions, including an amendment to state clearly the aim of limiting immigration and a reduction of the upper age at which foreign children can join their parents in Germany from 14 to 12.
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