How can I be an international student

How welcome are international students? : "I almost despaired of Germany"

"I was given four weeks to settle my life in Germany," says FU student Ricardo Cabalero (name changed by the editorial team). "Four weeks for five and a half years."

Cabalero, who comes from Venezuela, is on the home stretch of his master's degree in philosophy when the letter from the Berlin immigration authority - which has been called the “State Immigration Office” since the beginning of 2020 - urged him to emigrate quickly.

Despite an exuberant study prognosis by FU professor Hilge Landweer, who promises a quick completion of his master's thesis on German phenomenology and attests to his excellent achievements, he is no longer welcome in Germany.

Official practice vs. culture at universities

The Federal Republic's interest in his departure outweighs its interest in staying - that was the tenor of the official decision that was in his mailbox in the summer of 2019.

Education policy in Berlin in particular has long been emphasizing its concern to make universities more international. If you look at the Ricardo Cabalero case, you might get the idea that official practice is contrary to this.

Does the much-touted welcoming culture for international students only exist on paper?

"I send study forecasts directly to lawyers"

The Venezuelan FU student Cabalero does not seem to be alone with his problems. "It happens more and more often that I send study forecasts directly to lawyers," says Hilge Landweer. The long-time spokeswoman for the Federal Association of Foreign Students (BAS), Maimouna Outarra, also says that students from non-EU countries often seek legal assistance.

(Also read on the topic: How Germany makes it difficult for students from non-EU countries to issue visas.)

Cabalero also hired a lawyer, the expert on immigration law and former presiding judge at the Berlin Administrative Court, Percy MacLean. “In view of his excellent study prognosis, the overzealousness of the immigration authorities to deport Ricardo Cabalero was incomprehensible to me,” says MacLean. The authority invested an enormous amount of effort in preventing the young man from completing his studies.

What exactly happened

In spring 2019, Cabalero will go to the Berlin immigration office to extend his expiring visa. Apart from the master's thesis, the concept of which has already been developed, he has passed all the exams - but is now waiting for the results, which is why he is still lacking the necessary forecast.

The examination results are outstanding

As expected, his residence permit will not be extended until the university announces its clear confidence in the completion of his studies. Until a final decision has been made, he must surrender his passport. "At that point, I wasn't worried," says the philosophy student.

The grades are received, his examinations are - apart from a 1.3 - all graded 1.0. Landweer writes her first forecast, which says that the "excellent and very precise student" will have finished his studies in early summer 2020.

The linguistic difficulties justified the allotted time. He sends the missing documents to the immigration authorities - including a notice from his psychiatrist about severe depressive episodes, which can sometimes delay the filling of the credit point account.

Suddenly the information: The visa will not be extended

The mills begin to grind, Cabalero waits two months for an answer. Then he asks the authorities for an appointment - he needs the collected passport to travel to Venezuela for his best friend's wedding. Now the clerk tells him that his visa will not be extended, that he can have his passport and leave the country; He would then no longer be allowed to enter.

Cabalero wants to know the reasons - they will be given to him in writing as soon as possible. The young man cancels his flight and waits two more months for the announced letter.

The psychological burden is enormous. “During that time, I was completely in the air,” says Cabalero. "It was pure hell for me, every day I went anxiously to the mailbox, I barely slept and chewed off a fingernail." He turns to Percy MacLean, who cannot prepare the defense at first because they are still written order is missing.

He should leave Germany within four weeks

Finally he received the expected letter: At five and a half years in his master's degree, he had studied too long, and he would not be granted another year for his master's thesis. It is not understandable why there are still language barriers that have to be overcome in the first two years. The psychological problems are also insufficient reasons for the extension.

In short: he should leave Germany within four weeks. "How can you give up on the social life, friendships and love relationships that have grown over the years?" Asks Cabalero.

Now nobody can expect that the officials of the immigration office can assess the difficulties that arise from dealing with the highly complex language worlds of Edmund Husserl or Bernhard Waldenfels. Even native speakers have their problems here.

More cooperation between universities and authorities is desired

But shouldn't you then listen to the experts? "I'm not sure how seriously the agency takes our recommendations," says Landweer. You do not write favorability forecasts, but carefully examine the individual case. “Especially in philosophy, a lot depends on a competent use of language. It is absolutely clear that foreign students need longer here. ”She does not have the feeling that there is always enough understanding from the responsible authorities.

Landweer would like more cooperation between the university and the immigration authorities. "I would like my 40 years of experience in advising students to be taken into account."

In the Cabalero case, Landweer writes a second prognosis in which she names the obstacles mentioned, refers to the need to deepen Cabalero's language skills and to his severe depression.

The authority remains stubborn

It is clear that he has his problems under control and started with his master's thesis, and it would be extremely tragic not only for him, but “also for philosophy and for the Free University, which has already invested a lot in his training if Mr. Cabalero, who has such extraordinary and excellent performance, could not complete his studies ”.

But the authority remains stubborn. Cabalero files suit. “The immigration authorities were not ready to come to an agreement,” says Percy MacLean. Even on the suggestion of the court to extend the four-week period initially, they did not want to get involved. Ultimately, the first instance decides that he can complete his studies. But the spook is still not over. The immigration authorities are suing the Higher Administrative Court against the decision of the first instance in order to force his deportation after all.

Another dilemma arises for Cabalero from the fact that, parallel to the events in Germany, his naturalization process is running in Spain. As a descendant of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, he has the opportunity to become a compatriot.

Is the "failure of the immigration authorities" an unfortunate individual case?

For this, however, he would have to be in Spain and show a valid passport, which is still in the filing cabinet of the state office. Only when the second instance decides in his favor weeks later - to deport him so shortly before completing his master's thesis is beyond any proportionality - he finally gets his passport back. At the end of January 2020, before the coronavirus paralyzes passenger traffic in Europe, he can travel to Spain to apply for naturalization. Shortly afterwards he returned to Berlin.

Is this "failure of the immigration authorities" (Percy MacLean) just an unfortunate individual case? Do international students feel sufficiently welcome in the city of Berlin, which is constantly striving to maintain its cosmopolitan image?

After all, a third of the newly enrolled students come from abroad. A total of 35,000 people at the eleven state universities and the Charité alone have an international passport.

One must ensure that the students feel that they are in good hands in the Berlin university system, explains Steffen Krach, State Secretary for Science and Research, at the request of the Tagesspiegel. This also includes professional support in the responsible authorities, for example when it comes to visa matters.

Renaming to "State Office for Immigration"

The renaming of the immigration office to “State Office for Immigration” makes it clear what the claim is. "When specific problems are brought up to us, we take them very seriously and of course follow them up," says Krach. General allegations of defensiveness are however unfair to the many committed employees.

Maimouna Outarra explains that the State Immigration Office sometimes appears to international students as a “defense authority”. She has heard such allegations over and over again in her many years as a BAS spokesperson, says the political scientist and philologist, who comes from the Ivory Coast. What is reported to her more often - and what she has also experienced herself - is an inability or unwillingness of civil servants to speak English to students.

The processes are often incomprehensible

An assessment that the scientific coordinator of the Berlin International College of Research and Graduate Training (BIRT), Isabel Winnwa, shares. "There are many administrative hurdles that make their stay in Berlin difficult for students."

The bureaucracy is often presented in a very incomprehensible manner, and the authorities sometimes lack the willingness to accommodate students. "You need comprehensible explanations of how processes work, as well as more resources, more personnel and a leaner bureaucracy," says Winnwa.

For Maimouna Outarra, dealing with the authorities is often like a Kafkaesque experience. She would like more sensitivity and intercultural competence. In addition, multilingualism and a basic understanding of the student's environment should become the norm. Unlike the immigration authorities, the universities have continuously improved their range of advice and support for students.

The interior authority contradicts

A spokesman for the Senate Department for the Interior explains at the request of the Tagesspiegel that the Berlin immigration authority has been working on its bilingualism for several years. Essential information would be offered in English. There are regular training courses and a “half-day exchange of experiences with all public universities and technical colleges that takes place at least once a year”.

There was simply no question of the State Immigration Office being a “defense authority”: “The rate of refusals is around 1.6 percent per year. In 2019 there were 167 592 positive decisions to 2754 refusals. "

But: there is room for improvement

However, both the Senate Department for Home Affairs and the State Secretary for Science and Research admit that there is room for improvement in the welcoming culture. “We should further strengthen linguistic and intercultural skills. A website for the state office in English would also be helpful, ”says Krach.

In any case, Ricardo Cabalero felt temporarily completely lost in the face of the bureaucratic machine and unwelcome in the city that is his home. “Without my lawyer, my professor and my many German friends, I would be desperate for Germany.” If he were naturalized in Spain as a descendant of Sephardic Jews, he would live in Berlin as an EU citizen.

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