Immigration policy in Spain


When Guillermo Canteral, a 27-year-old Ecuadorian wanted to come to Spain, he did it the legal way. With the help of his sister, he found a job in Madrid as a cook and secured a contract from the employer. Then he booked a flight from Quito and for the first time in his life, boarded a plane, hoping that his economic woes were behind him.
A year later, he is unemployed and without a residence, renting a couch from a fellow immigrant for 80 euros a month. But Canteral did not get fired. He simply has been stuck on the gridlock of Spanish bureaucracy waiting for the government to approve his paperwork. Meanwhile, he has bounced from one illegal job to another and passed an occasional night outdoors because his landlady did not trust him with the keys to the house.


“I feel angry,” he says of the less-than-warm welcome he has received here. “Plenty of Spaniards come to Ecuador each year and everyone treats them like they are kings.”


Spain has experienced a surge in immigration, both legal and not, in the last decade and is still grappling with the change it has meant for this traditionally closed society. Much like the United States along its southern border, it has spent more money on policing and apprehension of immigrants than dealing with some two million foreigners who now reside on the Iberian Peninsula. And while it has meant less illegal immigrants on the streets on Spain, it has also resulted in an increased number of drownings in the Strait of Gibraltar and the proliferation of people smuggling rings.


“The laws should adapt to our reality,” says Diego Lorento, director of a Madrid NGO, SOS Racismo, that helps document instances of racial and ethnic discrimination. “We need people to work, but instead we criminalize them and make them risk their lives to come here.”


While in 1991 there were only 400,000 legal immigrants, the number had jumped to over a million by 2001, according to the Office of Foreign Affairs and Immigration in Madrid. Today they make up 3.24 percent of Spain’s population, the lowest of all EU countries.


The government has had general amnesties, the last one in 2001, that legalized many immigrants. But at the same time it has made it increasingly difficult to use the legal channels for immigrants to regularize their status, often forcing them to wait three or more years and show proof of employment before they can proceed with the application.


“Spain’s immigration laws are very closed, especially when you consider the great needs our labor market has for them,” says Lorenzo Cachón Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Complutense in Madrid.


Even though official unemployment figures hover at 11 percent, immigrants from poor countries generally do not compete with locals for jobs, says Cachón. Instead, the work in the fields, in construction and cleaning houses, the kind of work Spaniards used to do 20 years ago, but now many frown upon.


The recently passed Ley de Extranjería, or The Immigration Law, creates even more barriers for immigrants to becoming legalized, extending the waiting time before they can apply and restricting many of their rights such as freedom of assembly. Also, the Spanish government is hopelessly weighed down by excessive paperwork and red tape, prolonging the waiting time for applicants sponsored by an employer, as was the case with Canteral.


And as if the Spanish bureaucracy wasn’t enough, immigrants, especially those who are dark, have a hard time fitting into their new society. Without national identification, they are barred from renting an apartment and forced to look for work illegally, which provides no guarantees of payments or work-safety. On the streets, they are often jeered and taunted. When Romanus Njaka, a Nigerian, rides the Metro, he notices Spaniards don’t want to sit next to him, even if there are no other seats. Canteral, the Ecuadorian who is still waiting for his visa, has been blocked from entering his apartment building by other residents.


 It is not hard to find racist graffiti spray painted on walls telling Moroccans and “other darkies” to go home. Others are told to speak Spanish when heard chatting in their own language on the bus or the Metro and in some cases, even beaten up as happened to a group of men from Gambia in Barcelona and another in Huelva (southern Spain). These are instances that SOS Racismo catalogs and denounces in written complaints, but have continued throughout the country. 


Inevitably, race plays a big role in the kind of treatment immigrants get in Spain. While Germans might still be an oddity to some Spaniards, they are viewed much more favorably than people from Ecuador or Morocco, countries that lead in the numbers of legal migration here. Jose Lius Echevarra*, a retired factory worker in Madrid who asked for his real last name to not be used, says he sees nothing wrong with immigrants coming to his country in order to improve their lives. But when it comes to immigrants of other religions, like Moroccan Muslims, he fears their influence on Spain, he says. 


“We are not racists nor do we discriminate in general, but we would prefer for immigrants to come from the U.S. or West Europe where they are more civilized,” he says. “Spain is a Catholic country, but the Moroccans are coming here and demanding more rights. They want their mosques and other things. ”


Whatever the future holds, one thing is sure. Immigration will become even more of an hot button issue for Spain in the years to come, something the government won’t be able to either close its eyes on or just wish away. But many in the immigration community are not enthusiastic about the future.


“The Spanish government does not have a plan to integrate immigrants nor is interested economically in resolving the issue because they benefit too much from it,” says Said el Azzouzi, a cultural mediator who emigrated from Morocco three years ago. “Maybe change will come with time, but it won’t cure everything. You also need will and desire before something happens.”

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