Protest and Reform in Asylum Policy: Citizen Initiatives versus Asylum Seekers in German Municipalities, 1989-1994

Article excerpt

Many writers have argued that anti-immigration politics in Germany (1) and other West European countries have been driven by radical--right parties (2) or the electoral maneuvering of national politicians from established parties. (3) Others have argued that waves of violence against immigrants and ethnic minorities have spurred anti-immigration politics, (4) or that racist ideologies and socioeconomic inequality are the root causes. (5) By comparison, authors have paid relatively little attention to anti-immigration mobilization at subnational levels, including the public positions taken by subnational politicians and the activities of movement groups, or "challengers." (6) Nonetheless, research has shown that subnational politicians are often important in pressing national campaigns for immigration controls. (7) Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, anti-immigration politicians in Britain and Germany have responded in large part to local challengers, who were aided by political elites at local and regional levels. (8)

In this article, I aim to contribute to our understanding of the role of local challengers and local politicians in anti-immigration politics. I focus on neglected aspects of the anti-immigration (9) movement in Germany in the period from 1989 to 1994: nonviolent mobilization by relatively moderate groups that were opposed to asylum seekers at the municipal or neighborhood level. In places as diverse as the city of Munich and small towns in Schleswig-Holstein, citizen initiatives mobilized against growing numbers of asylum seekers. Unlike skin-head and neo-Nazi groups, these citizen initiatives pursued mainly reformist goals, such as blocking or reducing immigration by asylum seekers into their localities, and mobilized mainly in conventional, nonviolent ways, such as attending meetings and circulating petitions.

I make four arguments. First, nonviolent, reform-oriented, tactically conventional mobilization by resident groups against asylum seekers was widespread in this period, at least across western Germany. (10) Countermobilization by groups that favored asylum rights and the social integration of immigrants was also common, especially in large cities. Second, nonviolent local mobilization against asylum seekers was spurred by a combination of suddenly increased grievances and alliances between citizen initiatives and local political elites. By contrast, mobilization was not closely related to differences in the localities' social composition (lower, middle, or upper class). This provides support for political--process theories of movements, which hold that challenger mobilization is promoted by elite--provided opportunities and by new threats. (11)

Third, mobilization by anti-immigration and pro-immigrant citizen initiatives was part of the democratic political process at the local level. It involved mostly nonviolent participation, it helped increase elite competition for public support, especially in large cities such as Munich, and it triggered government concessions that helped reduce conflicts between local residents and asylum seekers. Fourth, local mobilization by citizen initiatives was an important part of the national movement against asylum seekers in the early 1990s. It spurred the elite debate on asylum policy and helped force the adoption of a popular constitutional amendment (Article 16a) that restricted the right to asylum. In this regard, too, the local citizen initiatives' mobilization was part of the democratic process.

To provide broad support for these arguments, I undertake a cross--sectional analysis of fifteen cases in ten localities in two jurisdictions (the city of Munich and Rendsburg-Eckernforde County in Schleswig-Holstein) during the period from 1989 to 1994. In the next sections, I describe the conflict settings regarding asylum policy and discuss how I selected the cases. Then I present the Munich cases and the Schleswig-Holstein cases in their respective contexts, including one detailed case study in each jurisdiction. …