BERLIN German ministers outlined plans on Tuesday to speed up the deportation of foreigners who commit crimes, responding to sexual attacks on women by migrants in Cologne which have deepened doubts about the country's open-door refugee policy.
The assaults on New Year's Eve, which are the subject of an ongoing investigation, have emboldened right-wing groups and unsettled members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, raising pressure on her to crack down forcefully on migrants who commit crimes.
Under plans unveiled by conservative Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Social Democrat (SPD) Justice Minister Heiko Maas, foreigners who are found guilty of committing physical and sexual assaults, resisting police or damaging property, could be deported.
Under current law, most of these crimes carry probationary sentences and do not trigger expulsion.
Merkel welcomed the agreement between the two ministers who represent different parties in her right-left coalition.
"We must make sure the law can take effect as soon as possible. First we have to think how to get the parliamentary process going as quickly as possible," conservative Merkel said.
On Monday night, more than 200 masked right-wing supporters, carrying placards with racist overtones, went on a rampage in the eastern city of Leipzig, throwing fireworks, breaking windows and vandalizing buildings, police said.
That took place at the same time as roughly 2,000 anti-Muslim protesters marched peacefully in the city center and chanted "Merkel must go". They held placards showing the chancellor in a Muslim veil and reading "Merkel, take your Muslims with you and get lost".
More than 600 women have complained of being attacked on New Years Eve in Cologne and other German cities. The complaints range from sexual molestation to theft and police have said their investigations are focused on illegal migrants from north Africa as well as asylum seekers.
In response, Michael Grosse-Broemer, parliamentary whip for Merkel's conservatives, called on Tuesday for steps to limit immigration from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia by classifying them as "safe countries".
Germany took the same step for western Balkan countries last year and has seen a sharp drop in arrivals from there since then.
The head of Cologne police was dismissed last week for his handling of the attacks and the SPD interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Ralf Jaeger is also under fire from political foes.
With more migrants arriving in Europe's biggest economy, Merkel is under growing pressure to toughen her line on refugees. However, her coalition parties are at odds on a range of other steps.
An INSA poll in Bild daily put support for Merkel's conservative bloc down 1 point at 35 percent with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has strongly criticized Merkel's refugee policies, up 2 points at 11.5 percent.
INSA polls put the conservatives a couple percentage points lower and AfD higher than the other leading polling institutes.
Social tensions have already bubbled to the surface with almost daily attacks on refugee shelters.
On Monday evening, the group of right-wingers who vandalized part of Leipzig held a placard reading "Leipzig bleibt Helle", or "Leipzig stays light", an apparent reference to the skin color of residents.
(Editing by Noah Barkin and Raissa Kasolowsky)