BERLIN (AP) _ Germany is struggling with record unemployment, a stagnant economy and a ballooning federal deficit.

So why, the leader of the political opposition asks, should the country grant automatic citizenship _ and all the welfare benefits that entails _ to more than 200,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union each year, just because they come from German stock?

The question, posed last month by Social Democratic Party chairman Oskar Lafontaine, unleashed a tempest of criticism, illustrating the sensitivity of the subject of immigration in Germany, where a surge of anti-foreigner violence that followed unification in 1990 has only recently subsided.

Critics from across the political spectrum accuse Lafontaine of resorting to demagoguery in the hope of winning votes in Sunday's local elections in three important states. A strong showing by the liberal Social Democrats could endanger Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative coalition in parliament.

Lafontaine insists he's only facing facts.

With a jobless rate of more than 11 percent, ``we just can't bring more and more workers to Germany,'' he said in a newspaper interview last week.

A recent poll found 70 percent of Germans supported Lafontaine's call to limit the flow of ``Aussiedler,'' ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet bloc.

The German-born Empress Catherine the Great invited German farmers and craftspeople to Russia in 1762 to help modernize the country, granting them land, religious freedom and other special privileges.

During World War II, Stalin ordered all ethnic Germans in the lower Volga region deported to Siberia and Central Asia as potential traitors. Thousands died in labor camps or coal mines.

Because of that persecution, West Germany's postwar constitution included the right to automatic citizenship for Aussiedler.

``We have a responsibility to the people who had to suffer because they were German,'' said Horst Waffenschmidt, the federal secretary responsible for Aussiedler affairs.

Most, however, were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Until the late 1980s, only about 20,000 or 30,000 a year actually made the trip, usually after West Germany paid a ``ransom'' to the Soviet-bloc governments.

But as communism crumbled, the numbers jumped. More than 2 million have arrived since 1988, most from the former Soviet Union. The government estimates another 2.2 million are eligible to come.

Pia Hermann, 71, and her 74-year-old sister, Julia Jaufmann, arrived in 1994 from Kazakstan, where Hermann says ethnic Germans had to hide their language and culture and do jobs no one else wanted.

Standing next to their bunk beds in a tiny room at a Red Cross shelter in eastern Berlin, the two women who had never before set foot on German soil said in old-fashioned German that they finally feel at home.

``We never felt like Kazaks,'' Jaufmann said. ``We were German.''

Yet Lafontaine maintains that most of today's Aussiedler are economic refugees taking advantage of an immigration law loophole. About 80 percent of recent arrivals were born after World War II.

``Now completely different generations are coming who are as foreign here as any other immigrant,'' he said. ``At the most, maybe the grandmother speaks German.''

For non-ethnic Germans, the road to citizenship is much harder. Even if born on German soil, they must be residents for several years before they can begin the complex and costly process of naturalization.

As a result, only about 10,000 non-Germans are naturalized annually in a country with 7 million foreigners.

Germany also toughened its laws in 1993, in response to a flood of refugees, most of whom, the government said, were fleeing economic hardship, not political persecution.

The new laws followed a rash of anti-foreigner attacks by neo-Nazis, and some worry that attempts to make the Aussiedler scapegoats for Germany's current economic woes could encourage new violence.

``We saw that three years ago with the asylum-seekers, and the danger is great that it can happen again,'' said Hisham Hammad of the leftist Alliance 90-Greens party.

In towns like Lahr in the Black Forest, where a former Canadian military base has been converted into a large Aussiedler settlement, friction between the Russian-speaking Aussiedler and locals occasionally erupts into fights. ``No Russians'' signs hang at some bars and discos.

``In the Soviet Union they were derided and abused as Germans,'' said A. Cramme-Trojan, who runs the shelter for 150 people. ``They come here and suddenly they're Russians.''

The federal government spends about $2.2 billion each year on Aussiedler for everything from housing to language and job-training courses, Waffenschmidt said.

Despite the initial costs, advocates for the Aussiedler argue they are a good investment.

Only one in 10 qualify immediately for a pension. Those of working age find a job _ and begin paying taxes _ on average less than eight months after arrival, compared to the nearly 13 months the average laid-off native-born German stays on unemployment.

``The Aussiedler are more apt to take jobs that other Germans don't want,'' such as low-paying restaurant or farm work that otherwise goes to foreign laborers, Waffenschmidt said. ``So they're not ruining the job market.''

Lydia Stieglitz, 39, arrived with her family in Berlin in December. She worked as a bookkeeper in Kazakstan, but said she was willing to do anything in Germany _ even work as a janitor.

In Kazakstan, she said, she was ashamed of her German heritage and tried to hide it in public.

``I want my children to have their homeland, that they speak their mother tongue better than I can,'' she said. ``I know that Germany at first won't be so easy. ... But I think my children will have a better life here.''