There may be a lot of grumbling in parts of Europe about German arrogance in dealing with the euro crisis, but it has not interfered with record numbers of people immigrating to Germany. Last year that number totaled more than a million new immigrants (Statistisches Bundesamt), a wave not seen in over two decades in the aftermath of unification.

While the largest portion of those immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary), there was a huge jump in those from Southern Europe, especially from countries hit hardest by the economic crisis running through Europe. They are also coming from those places where demonstrations against Angela Merkel’s euro policies have been the loudest: Greece, Spain and Italy. Of course, it is in those countries where the unemployment levels have been rapidly rising, especially among the younger groups looking for jobs. Germany’s labor market, on the other hand, is seeing declining levels of unemployment, with many employers complaining about a shortage of qualified workers. Indeed, with a declining and aging population, Germany is going to need immigrants to help maintain economic growth as well as sustain its expensive social welfare system. The question is how that complicated process is going to be managed.

Today’s debates surrounding immigration policy have evolved over a half century of dealing with the complex problems of recruiting more people and integrating them peacefully into German society. In contrast to the wave of workers who began to come to Germany from southern Europe and Turkey in the early sixties, Germany’s need for skills is changing—but so are the realities of German society.

Because of the need for manpower lost in the war, the so called “Gastarbeiter”, or guest workers, were recruited into the heavy industrial sectors to work the machines and the mines, as well as build the infrastructure of post-war Germany. Today, the skill sets needed are shaped by microchips and computers, with a far greater need for higher level education and training, regardless of where immigrants come from.

While Germany’s experience with immigrants from Europe is not new, absorbing the large number of Turkish immigrants over the last half century has been more difficult. The challenges of reconciling social and cultural differences have caused strains and frictions that remain visible to this day. The process of assimilation has been uneven on both sides of the equation and it cannot be divorced from difficult relations with Turkey itself. There is a significant Turkish presence in German society today, some of which does not feel accepted but also is in part not accepting their own choice of living in Germany. The Turkish dimension has merged with the increasing profile of Islam within German society.

Yet there are also other challenges from immigrants trying to find their place in German society, such as the thousands of Russians who have immigrated during the past two decades—apart from those who have sought asylum from the Balkan wars in the nineties. Other ethnic German groups from Eastern Europe have also been immigrating into an ever more multi-cultural Germany.

As for many societies confronting the challenges of immigration, a key question in Germany is: what are the dynamics, the limits and the options of integrating immigrants in an increasingly diverse society? There is no one accepted method for such a process that is applicable to all industrial societies seeing increases in immigration on their doorstep.  Each society has its own history and its own preferences.

In the United States, the current debate about immigration has been severely politicized due to the concerns over illegal immigrants that have been living in American society for a long period of time. The growing fixation over controlling the border with Mexico has only helped to fan the political flames—much of which has been wrought by increasing threats of violence, terrorism and criminal impact on the border territories.

Yet the reality of American society is reflected in its changing composite picture, as is seen in both the demand for and supply of labor and skills. Immigrants from around the world deliver on both ends within the U.S. As the columnist David Brooks put it in a recent editorial:

“The opponents of immigration reform are trying to hold back the inevitable. Whether immigration reform passes or not, the United States is going to become a much more cosmopolitan country than it is now. The country will look more like the faces you see at college commencement exercises and less like the faces you see in senior citizen homes.”

That message may soon apply to German society as well.

While the reaction to the reports of an uptick in immigration in Germany was greeted with generally positive responses from the German political elite, Germany still faces the problem of making it possible for the kind of talent they’re looking for outside of the country to not only come to Germany, but also to stay. The same report which documented the increase in immigration also pointed out that a fairly large number of people left Germany over the same period. Like the United States, Germany needs to take a good look at its integration process and procedures to see whether it is going to accomplish both goals of attracting talented people and making them feel at home.

In both the case of Germany and of the United States, one of the main attractions to immigrants is the prospect of economic success and a better future. That is a huge advantage in an increasingly globally competitive environment. However, it is not something to simply take for granted.

Further analysis on immigration in Germany and the recent report from the Statistisches Bundesamt:

“Einwanderung in Deutschland 2012 auf Rekordniveau”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“Krise treibt Griechen und Spanier nach Deutschland”, Sueddeutsche Zeitung