German language students Lucia Bressa from Italy (left) and Carlos Villalba from Spain have beers outside of a bar in the Neukölln district of Berlin after their German languauge course. (Adam Berry/For the Washington Post)

An unemployed architect back in Barcelona, Jordi Colombi weighed his options and decided to start a new life. Armed with two suitcases and a Spanish-omelet recipe to feed his homesickness, he arrived two months ago in the land of opportunity.


In the United States, the immigration debate is toxic and paralyzed. Political parties raging against foreigners are surging at the polls in Britain and France. But in Germany, the government is rolling out a red carpet by simplifying immigration procedures, funding free language classes, even opening “ welcome centers” for newcomers looking to carve out a piece of the German dream.

In the rankings of the globe’s most prosperous countries, this economic powerhouse of 82 million has now leapfrogged Canada, Britain, Italy and Spain to become the largest destination for immigrants after the United States, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Because of a morbidly low birthrate, the population here is shrinking, raising the pivotal question of who will keep the massive German economy humming in the years ahead. Yet even as insular nations facing similar plights, such as Japan, continue to resist importing workers, Germany is counting on immigrants such as Colombi. In a nation where former Chancellor Helmut Kohl once famously declared that “Germany is not an immigrant country,” the 36-year-old Spaniard is part of what is fast becoming a global experiment in the immigration debate.

Jordi Colombi Piñol, a Spanish architect who was unemployed in Barcelona but is now working as a architect and site manager in Berlin, walks through the construction site for a residential complex upon which he is working, on June 24, 2014. (Adam Berry/For the Washington Post)

His place of employment, a construction site near the northern fringes of this fast-globalizing city, is a symbol of the welcoming society at work. English is the lingua franca at the site, a Tower of Babel studded with Hebrew-speaking managers from Israel, Bulgarian demolition crews, German bricklayers and African day laborers. In his office trailer on a recent afternoon, Colombi, the project’s architect, who shifts daily between English, Catalan, Spanish, Italian and basic German, pored over blueprints with an engineering intern from India.

“My life has totally changed in the two months since I arrived,” said Colombi, a thin, pale ghost of a man with a Van Gogh beard. “I have a job, an apartment, a new life. I still don’t like the food or the weather, but this is now my home.”

Sustaining a boom

Germany has gone through waves of immigration before, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when great numbers of Turkish guest workers helped provide the backbone of its Cold War-era economy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Germans poured back into the country, mostly from points east.

But the latest upsurge is largely based on Germany’s reemergence in recent years as Europe’s undisputed economic leader, a beacon of light on a continent still suffering from the aftermath of a brutal debt crisis. In the 28-nation European Union, free movement of labor means nationals can easily relocate from one country to the next. And with unemployment at 25.1 percent in Spain, 26.6 percent in Greece, and 12.6 percent in Italy, Germany — with an economy built on industrial giants such as Siemens and an army of innovative small and midsize companies — has never looked so good.

But Germany also is looking beyond Europe for prospective workers, with German factories courting Indian engineers and German universities competing for Chinese students. In 2012, Germany simplified the process for immigrants from outside the E.U. In 2013, Germany introduced a “Blue Card” system, effectively granting entry to anyone with a university degree and a job offer with a minimum salary of $50,000 to $64,000 a year, depending on the field. As a result, the average immigrant moving to Germany is better educated and more skilled than the average German.

To a far smaller degree, Germany also is reaching out to the jobless. In 2013, the government launched a special program aimed at young, unemployed Europeans ages 18 to 35, covering their travel, language courses and living costs while offering them vocational training in Germany. Interest in the $609 million program proved so overwhelming, however, that the German government had to cease taking new applicants in April.

Chancellor Angela Merkel — echoing the warnings of other European leaders such as Britain’s David Cameron — has spoken out against immigrants relocating here merely to tap generous domestic welfare benefits. Yet in contrast to the foreigner-bashing unfolding across Europe, she told economic leaders late last year that “Germany today is a country that is indeed very open to immigration.”

“It is really rare anywhere to see the kind of burst in immigration we’re seeing in Germany,” said Thomas Liebig, the OECD’s senior migration specialist. “It’s being driven by free mobility within Europe, but this is also because the German government has taken steps to modernize, and liberalize, immigration laws.”

In some places, hostility

The number of immigrants is expected to taper off as other European countries begin to recover. Yet the sheer size of the recent wave — about 400,000 immigrants arrived in 2012, up 38 percent compared with the previous year — is testing the limits of Germany’s welcome mat.

In the struggling coal town of Dortmund, an apparent backlash against foreigners led to the election to the city council last month of a far-right politician who campaigned on the slogan, “Germany for Germans.” Also last month, a report from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution registered 473 physical assaults motivated by xenophobia in 2013, up 20 percent from a year earlier. And many Germans still call the lack of assimilation among Turkish immigrants — including their second- and third-generation children and grandchildren — a leading national problem.

But anti-immigrant and far-right parties have gained nowhere near as much traction in Germany as they have in countries elsewhere in Europe. Observers call it partly a product of World War II-era guilt, a sense that Germans owe their neighbors a share of their newfound prosperity.

But it also is an invention of German pragmatism. The aging population is shrinking here, with the 2011 census showing a loss of about 1.5 million people since the 1980s. As the decline accelerates, by 2030 the government predicts a hole as big as 2.3 million workers in the German labor force.

Whether they like it or not, “Germans know they need immigrants,” said Reiner Klingholz, managing director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Multilingual immigrants such as Colombi have started to fill that gap, leveraging the relatively high level of English spoken in international companies in Germany to land work. In day-to-day business, however, German remains essential here, and jobs like his form a bridge to wider opportunity once he masters the language.

A welcome in Berlin

In Germany, Berlin also is an outlier, perhaps the least-German city, where foreigners and non-German cultures thrive. After he finishes work and language classes, for instance, Colombi heads home to the neighborhood of Neukolln — a center of global hipsterdom where English, Spanish, Italian and Turkish are almost as common as German at independent coffeehouses, pop-up art galleries and vinyl record shops.

“Berlin is different than other parts of Germany, and that’s why I think I can make it here,” he said. “It is more relaxed, more accepting than other German cities, and there is no pressure to behave a certain way.”

Yet as other recent arrivals from southern Europe can attest, transitions even to foreigner-friendly German cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt can be tough. It is one reason why experts say a relatively large number of immigrants who move here eventually go home.

David Fernandez, an unemployed social worker from Madrid, decided last year while marching in a street protest that “nothing in Spain was ever going to change.” He had never been to Germany, but “everyone was talking about how you could get work, how you could build something real. So I decided, I will go.”

He found a cheap room online before he landed in Berlin. But speaking no German or English, he struggled to communicate with his new landlords, and eventually moved into a group house. There, he faced a series of culture clashes with his German roommates. “They are so serious, and not always the warmest people,” he said. “It’s not what I’m used to.”

Meanwhile, his linguistic disadvantage left him working as a dishwasher despite his university degree. He quit that job in January after a dispute with this boss. Now, he is working for minimum wage cleaning floors — ironically — at a Berlin branch of the Spanish retailer Zara.

“There’s no work in Spain and I’m not going back just to live with my parents until I’m 40,” said Fernandez, a blue-eyed 25-year-old with an infectious smile. “It’s not easy, I know that now. But I am going to make this work.”

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.