Home > Germany, Racial profiling, SB 1070 > Anticipating the Consequences of Arizona’s SB 1070: A Comparative Perspective from Germany, where Racial Profiling is Business as Usual – Susann Huschke

Anticipating the Consequences of Arizona’s SB 1070: A Comparative Perspective from Germany, where Racial Profiling is Business as Usual – Susann Huschke

Susann Huschke
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

In recent weeks I have followed the public debate on Arizona’s new immigration law, and I have been delighted to see that in the United States this kind of law at least provokes public anger and protest as well as political discussion. Will a law that allows police officers to demand documents from anyone (i.e. people whom they suspect, for whatever reason, to be illegal immigrants) lead to racial profiling? According to Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, no it won’t. Yet empirical evidence from Germany, where a similar law has been in place for over a decade, suggests a different answer: Yes, it will.

In 1994, Bavaria was the first German state to allow what is called verdachtsunabhängige Polizeikontrollen – supposedly ‘random’ identity checks that may be carried out without cause. Other federal states followed with similar legislation, with the ostensible goal of combating international organized crime, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, organized car theft – and illegal migration.

Comparing the critical public discourse in the United States with the relative silence on this topic in Germany, I wondered: Why is it that in Germany almost no one seems to be disturbed by our version of the “Papers Please” law? Why do we lack this kind of critical discourse? Is it because there is no reason to worry that this kind of legislation might lead to (unconstitutional) racial profiling? Perhaps this kind of legislation is not that bad after all?

Certainly, that can’t be it. This legislation is both unlawful and deeply troubling to anyone concerned about racial profiling.

The main question: If these identity checks are not carried out on the basis of concrete suspicion or proof, then on what basis are they carried out?

Let me consider this question by presenting three examples from the ethnographic research I have conducted over the course of 18 months in 2008 and 2009 with undocumented Latin American migrants in Berlin. Andrés and David, two Chilean men who had been living and working in Germany illegally for two and a half years, were sitting on a bench at a metro stop, chatting in Spanish. Two plainclothes police officers approached them and asked for their identification. Because of their use of a language other than German, their illegal status was revealed, and two weeks later they were deported to Chile.

Example number two: Two police officers rang the doorbell at our apartment in Berlin-Kreuzberg. On the previous day, someone had thrown a stone through our window and broken the glass; the officers had come to investigate. My Portuguese roommate Danielo opened the door. With his black hair, dark eyes, and limited knowledge of the German language at the time, they must have ‘identified’ him as a potential illegal immigrant. Instantly, he was asked for his passport, which he showed to the police officers, assuring them that he was a European Union citizen. Only then did they move on to examine the window.

And one last example: Mónica from Chile has been living in Germany illegally for about 10 years. She has never had any trouble with the police. She recounts stories like this one: She was sitting in an internet café full of foreigners when the police came in to conduct a raid and check everybody’s IDs – except for Mónica’s. Why? Mónica offered the following explanation: She has light skin, fair hair, blue eyes, and she speaks German well. She was not identified as a Latin American or as a foreigner at all, for that matter.

If this isn’t racial profiling, then what is? These are not just the biased observations of an overly skeptical anthropologist. In a report from 2003, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance came to the very same conclusion: In Germany, members of “visible, notably black, minority groups” are “disproportionately subject to checks carried out by the police and disproportionately singled out for controls in railway stations and in airports” (ECRI Third report on Germany 2003: 69). However, very few NGO’s tackle the problem stated in this report, and there has been virtually no public discourse on the issue. Why does hardly anyone seem to care that these identity checks lead to racial profiling and discrimination based on physical appearance, which are unconstitutional in Germany as well as being illegal according to international agreements?

Perhaps it is because being asked to produce proof of identity is much more common and therefore, more normal, in Germany than elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that part of the German population spent years of their lives under a socialist dictatorship. In the German Democratic Republic, citizens were used to an organized system of spying and surveillance by the “Staatssicherheit” (state/homeland security), including the recording of personal conversations and the forwarding of detailed information on private matters to the authorities. Thus part of German society is to some extent accustomed to having their civil rights impaired. More so, Germans regularly have been asked to identify themselves to the authorities since well before WWII. Being asked to provide proof of identity has been, and still is, a common feature of everyday interaction. For example, every resident is legally required to register with the local registration office immediately after moving to or within Germany.

There is also comparably little public protest around migrants’ rights in Germany. Large demonstrations and pleas for legalization like those in the United States, France, or Belgium have not emerged thus far. For many years, Germany was not even considered a country of immigrants in public discourse; only in the last decade did policy makers confront the reality that approximately 19 percent of the population are first- or second-generation immigrants.

The rights of undocumented migrants are even less a subject of public discussion. Undocumented migrants, who are among those most commonly targeted and affected by the German version of the “Papers Please” legislation, lack a lobby. In comparison with the United States, they are indeed invisible in the public arena. In Germany, the basic human rights of the approximately 500,000 undocumented migrants are constantly violated. Paragraph 87 of the German residence law obligates public institutions such as welfare offices, civil registration offices, courts, and public schools to denounce undocumented migrants to the police. This effectively leads to restricted access to basic health care, schooling, and fair working conditions. If these forms of exclusion do not provoke public outrage, why would racial profiling?

When I compare Germany and the U.S., I regret the lack of outrage about the enduring but no less harmful state practices of surveillance and discrimination in Germany, and I am glad to see that U.S. civil society is not yet equally numb to human and civil rights violations. However, I am concerned about the lack of realism, and honesty, on the lawmakers’ side. The German example shows that this kind of legislation does in fact lead to racial profiling, despite official denials. Arizona’s SB 1070 spurns one of the basic commitments of the United States: the prohibition of discrimination based on “race”, ethnicity, or nationality. I wonder: Do U.S. policy makers really want to walk down this path?

Sources and links:

Castañeda, Heide. 2010. Deportation Deferred: ‘Illegality,’ Visibility, and Recognition in Contemporary Germany. In The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz, eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Commentary on weak anti-discrimination legislation in Germany: http://www.migration-boell.de/web/diversity/48_2306.asp

Open Society Justice Initiative Report on Ethnic Profiling in the European Union (2009): http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/focus/equality_citizenship/articles_publications/publications/profiling_20090526

Image source: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/14/arizona-under-fire-hardly/

Susann Huschke, M.A. is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Her doctoral research (since 2008) focuses on health and sickness among undocumented Latin American migrants in Berlin. She is a member of the Berlin Office for medical assistance for refugees (Büro für medizinische Flüchtlingshilfe), an NGO providing health care to undocumented migrants. Since 1998, she has been working as a freelance journalist.


Cite this:

Huschke, Susann. 2010. Anticipating the Consequences of Arizona’s SB 1070: A Comparative Perspective from Germany, where Racial Profiling is Business as Usual. AccessDenied: A Conversation on Un/authorized Im/migration and Health. Accessed (date) at https://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/anticipating-the-consequences-of-arizona’s-sb-1070-a-comparative-perspective-from-germany-where-racial-profiling-is-business-as-usual-susann-huschke/

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