Berlin - Of all the aspects of life that come with moving to Germany, one has potential to strike dread in the heart more than any other – the Ausländerbehörde. Every German city has a “foreigners’ office” - an unavoidable stop for anyone who needs a visa or residency permit.

The offices carry a widespread reputation for an unwieldy appointment system - people have been known to camp out overnight to be first in line for a new day of appointments - and unfriendly staff, often unwilling to help those with imperfect German or who’ve turned up for their appointment minus one of many official documents. A year ago, Berlin decided that had to change.

As of 16 January 2020, Berlin now has a State Office for Immigration (Landesamt für Einwanderung, LEA) instead of an Ausländerbehörde, although many people still call it by its old name. City interior minister Andreas Geisel (SPD) called the revamp a “historic moment”, fitting to a city he called a symbol for “openness to the world and tolerance” and which he wanted to see become “the most liveable city in Europe by 2030”.

Key to that was creating a “genuinely welcoming authority”, he said. As Germany’s largest Ausländerbehörde – processing 400,000 people a year and issuing 12 per cent of Germany’s residency permits – he also spoke of a significant first move that would help make the case for Germany as a desirable destination for immigrants.

But there were pragmatic reasons for the shift too. “Berlin is the most popular city for immigration in Germany and urgently needs skilled workers,” a spokesperson for the interior ministry said. The fact is: Germany has an aging population, and Geisel admitted that this demographic shift “cannot be countered without targeted immigration”.

A need for speed in Berlin was more pressing than ever. The office’s boss, Engelhard Mazanke, who has led the Ausländerbehörde since 2011, said the number of immigrants to Berlin had increased by 7-15 per cent annually over recent years.

Photo: Imago/Stock&People
Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in its former guise.

To achieve the necessary changes, “access will be made easier, procedures more efficient and cooperation with other authorities expanded,” the spokesperson said. The LEA's replacement of the Ausländerbehörde was accompanied in March 2020 by the national Skilled Workers Immigration Act, which made it easier for those in key professions like doctors, IT specialists and engineers to come to Germany from outside the EU and even without a job contract. The idea for an office for “immigrants” rather than “foreigners” in Berlin was suggested by the city’s Greens as early as 2014, however.

The LEA’s physical presence in Berlin now consists of the former main office of the Ausländerbehörde on Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in Moabit, and a second site on Keplerstraße in Charlottenburg, which opened in 2016. People are directed to either of the two centres based on the kind of visa or residency status they need or hold. Another branch of the new office, the Business Immigration Service, helps over 1,000 registered companies in facilitating the employment of skilled immigrant workers.

“Demoralising” first appointment

Besides recruiting new staff - an extra 73 posts, including 15 in consultation roles or in the office’s new independent complaints system - Mazanke emphasised a friendlier, customer service approach, and said lawyers would be on hand full time in the future, instead of simply on a voluntary basis.

Linguistic diversity was also to be encouraged through a new interpreter service, and English lessons offered to staff. At the time of the renaming, 10 per cent were due to take part in a course in the near future. But if the patchy English section of the LEA website is anything to go by, there's still plenty of work to be done on that front.

For Wahlberliner like American Candace Aylor, language issues were central to her initial negative experiences at the Ausländerbehörde prior to its name change. On her first visit in October 2019, she described the experience as “shocking” and “demoralising”.

“The security guard yelling at all of us that had been standing in line for hours was our first introduction to the Berlin Ausländerbehörde,” she says. “It was scary because he would just yell and bark orders to people that very likely didn't understand him, and still would get mad when people tried to understand or clarify. My wife is German, and lived here for much of her childhood, but hadn't lived here for 20 years. So, she couldn't even understand most of what he was saying, but we all understood the tone.”

She remembers a German man accompanying a family to their appointment confronting the guard, saying he ought to speak English, a universal language, because at the immigration office, it’s probable not everyone there spoke German - but things were no better inside. “My wife asked [an Ausländerbehörde worker] in German if he could speak English with us. He said no, this is Germany,” Candace says.

“We had many, many similar experiences our first few months here, also with the Jobcenter - my wife would end up reduced to tears trying to talk to these people,” she adds. “Often times we could tell they often did understand English, because they would listen to us talking to each other, and answer my questions in English back to my wife in German.”

Candace's final visit in November 2019, when she was ultimately granted her 10-year visa, began as it does for many – queueing outside in miserable weather, early in the morning. “The guards were just on the other side, where the coffee vendor sits, getting their coffee and talking and laughing, while we're drenched and cold and scared and hopeful,” she says.

However, once Candace and her wife were inside the building, they noticed a marked change – two months before the office’s official rebranding came into effect. “The woman there was extremely kind, polite... and speaking both German and English. It was such a stark contrast. It felt like we'd gotten married all over again, because Germany had just acknowledged our marriage,” she remembers.

Another American, Constance Strawn, says they have only had positive experiences at the Ausländerbehörde since first registering in March 2018. Currently seeking asylum in Germany, they first received a residence permit of three months which is now renewed annually. “Other asylum seekers in my camp say that being American means I'm being given ass-kissing priority but American ‘expats’ say that I'm being treated with kid gloves as a refugee,” they say. “With my experience, I wouldn't say changes needed to be made… but I've read enough to know how rare and unusual my experience is.”

Constance originally came to Berlin to study in 2016 – and reading about Germany’s Grundgesetz (constitution) at that time encouraged them to stay longer. “As a disabled trans person, I knew Germany could protect me better than any other nation. I wish I didn't have a reason to need asylum, but I am blessed I was able to make it to Germany to register,” they say. “I'm hoping to make it through to naturalisation. I wish to stay here forever.”

A success story for Berlin or “lipstick on a pig”?

But how many of those goals from a year ago have actually been met? From its early days, the LEA project faced criticism that it would have to deliver more than just a name change to be truly effective. Ahead of the revamp, the leader of the CDU group in the Berlin state parliament, Burkard Dregger, said immigrants to the city “don't need a new sign on the door, they need housing, a functioning local transport system and schools for their children.”

Georg Classen of the Berlin Refugee Council also voiced scepticism to broadcaster rbb, saying around 12,000 “tolerated foreigners” were living in Berlin and unable to receive proper guidance and official documents. “Half of them are not allowed to work because, among other things, their identity has not been determined,” he said. “These people need to be advised and informed about how they can improve their situation.”

Actual users of the institutions services are also sceptical that the Ausländerbehörde’s new name and image overhaul are little more than window dressing – or “lipstick on a pig”, as one US citizen living here put it. Others remarked that the experience of going to the office was still something they dreaded, even dubbing it “the bleakest place in Berlin”.

The interior ministry spokesperson told Berliner Zeitung that the new LEA advisory service, staffed by six employees, is offering written support in an average of 1,000 cases a month in writing, and 900 more over the phone. Berlin’s former justice minister, Wolfgang Wieland of the Green Party, was recruited as an ombudsman for the office’s new complaints system, serving as an independent line of contact between service users and the office's management. The spokesperson added that nine new staff have also joined the Business Immigration Service, but did not specify how many other new employees had joined the LEA of the planned 73, or the areas they were working in.

Yet some argue that the Ausländerbehörde has undergone a longer transformation process spanning beyond last year’s rebranding. Kris Best, from Canada, has lived in Berlin for five and a half years on student and work visas, and is now on a Niederlassungserlaubnis (permanent residency permit) as of early this year. She traces improvements back to before the LEA, saying attitudes and services have “only improved” since she arrived in the summer of 2015.

“That was the peak of the refugee crisis, so all services for foreigners were strained,” she says. “I had to come once without an appointment to line up in early 2016 around 5am when they still had tents set up outside - hundreds of us were herded around like cattle, no clear instructions or idea of what was going on, and in the end I got to see someone around 1:30pm. Compared to that, the current services are great.” She adds that she had always found more positive staff and facilities at the newer Keplerstraße branch – but suspects the fact that “priority” cases like EU Blue Card holders, student visas or those seeking permanent residence are handled there could be behind this.

And in any case, her experience living elsewhere in Europe casts Berlin’s immigration authorities in an especially good light. “In Germany, I had my first two-year student visa granted in less than an hour in September 2015; I arrived in Paris in August 2011 and didn't receive my full residence permit until spring 2012,” she says. “So I honestly can't complain about the German process.”

“Younger generations have grown up with immigration more”

American Gabriel Garcia, who has lived in Germany for most of his life, says he’s noticed a difference since the name change, with “lots more young Beamte” and “cool design pieces on the wall instead of cat calendars”. But he thinks the shift in atmosphere has less to do with the name change itself, and more to do with wider societal trends.

“Germany wasn't really a ‘normal’ country in regards to immigration, i.e. no longer history of colonial empire like the UK, France or the Netherlands, and not a former colony like the Americas or Australia, so it only had very specific immigration,” he says. “Foreigners were either Gastarbeiter or American, British, French or Soviet troops, meaning there was no culture of integration or understanding. The younger generations have grown up with it more.”

Gabriel adds that although German society and bureaucracy today is “far less blatantly racist or discriminating” than he experienced in the 1980s and 90s, the comparatively low presence of lawyers or paralegals at the Ausländerbehörde compared to its foreign equivalents still creates difficulties. “[The staff] are just massively process oriented, and if you don't have what they want, they'll tell you to come back with other papers,” he says.

“There used to be a rule that you should get there first because they've just had their coffee and are in a better mood. Meaning, the decisions were sometimes arbitrary.”

The goals set out by Andreas Geisel a year ago were ambitious enough without the arrival of coronavirus, which was detected for the first time in Germany just weeks after the office opened. Some 20 per cent fewer visits were registered in the last quarter of 2020 (86,000) compared to the last quarter of 2019 (105,000).

Despite the fact that many of the office’s tasks require in-person attendance, the interior ministry spokesperson praised the “extraordinary” efforts of staff to “streamline” their work, with procedures moved online as much as possible. They say this has meant more residency permits were issued in the last quarter of 2020 than in the same period in 2019: 41,633 compared to 41,200.

Yet in Constance's experience, digital procedures often take longer, meaning they will welcome a return to in-person appointments. “The process as it is now really gave me more anxiety - while waiting for the answer, I had nightmares and panic attacks,” they say. “I knew I would get renewed, but until it was real I just couldn't convince myself of it. I prefer the office visit because I'm not left for days with questions.”

Digitisation strikes again

Despite corona, and the improvements to languages on offer and the office’s general atmosphere, modern Germany’s bugbear remains: digitisation. While some LEA procedures and visa types require individuals to wait to be invited to an appointment, others require you to book online – which can be more of an ordeal than it might sound.

Users speak of a frequently unreliable system which sees appointment slots only sporadically coming available before getting snapped up in the blink of an eye, or sometimes crashes under the overwhelming demand. If you can’t get an appointment, the classic option remains – turning up at the crack of dawn, queuing and hoping for the best.

One Brazilian resident said: “How come a city wants to become a “Silicon Valley” and their digital systems are crap like this... I know there’s obviously a difference between the public and private sector, but if the federal government can spare millions to [software developer] SAP to build the Corona-Warn app while other countries used thousands, I’m sure Berlin must have some capacity to build or hire someone to do something better if the systems are not the same as in other regions.” 

The interior ministry spokesperson said IT staff “constantly monitor” the accessibility of the office’s booking system – but a “quick server restart” often solves the problem. An improved IT system is reportedly in the works and due to appear in the first quarter of this year. Yet Fabricio Vela, from Peru, doesn’t think this alone will solve the problem.

“Whether appointments "must" be in person or not, I don't know, but if one can open a bank account with a video validation process, I imagine many visa cases could be attended like that as well,” he says. “But digitalisation without the man-power to back it up wouldn't help, and I think that's the main problem.”

“The fact that "waiting in line at 4am outside the AB" is a Berlin running joke is pretty telling. That has been an issue before Covid and for some of us, after hearing many stories, we just prepare for the worst.”

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