Spain Considers Immigration Reform That Would Make Things Harder for the Undocumented

By Jelena Kopanja, FI2W contributor

MADRID, Spain — A little girl stood in tears amidst the crowd at a protest in front of an immigrant detention center in Madrid, Spain. She was wearing a white shirt with her father’s identification number: 2286. An immigrant from Morocco, the man was apprehended while filling up his car at a gas station and had been in detention at the center for 30 days.

“The kids wake up in the middle of the night asking for their dad,” said the girl’s mother, who asked not to be identified by name.

The detention center near the Aluche subway station in Madrid was the focus of a protest on June 20th, World Refugee Day, against changes to immigration law that Spain is considering.

Watch a slideshow of the protest here:

Unlike the comprehensive immigration reform being discussed in the U.S., Spain’s new laws would make things harder for those undocumented workers already here. The proposed bill would, among other things, make it more difficult for immigrants to reunite with their families, impose fines on those who assist undocumented immigrants and increase the maximum allowed detention time from 40 to 60 days.

The demonstrators –including some undocumented migrants– shouted, “Immigration law makes us unequal, we are in time to stop it!” and “Papers for all!” From behind the walls of the detention center, muffled voices of the detainees rose in gratitude. “Thank you!” they yelled back.

Unlike the United States, where immigration is at the core of the nation’s history, Spain has only recently become a destination for large numbers of foreign people. Historically, it has been a country of emigration, and it was not until a decade or so ago that its growing economy began attracting workers from Africa, its former colonies in Latin America, and more recently, other parts of the European Union. Labor demand facilitated two large-scale legalizations in the past decade in Spain.

As President Barack Obama pushes for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. that could lead to legalizing some 11 million undocumented workers, the economic crisis is perceived as one of the factors that could possibly stall negotiations. Some scholars and economists argue, however, that immigration reform is necessary right now, in the midst of the recession, to meet the needs of a recovering economy. [ Click for a pdf of a Senate appearance by Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute ] Similarly, many advocates in Spain see the government’s moves toward more restrictive immigration policies not only as discriminatory, but also as shortsighted.

We work to make Spain the best country, says a sign at a protest against immigration reform in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

“We work to make Spain the best country,” says a sign at a protest against immigration reform in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

The proposed immigration reform is the latest attempt by the Spanish government to assuage the growing discontent among a population hit heavily by the economic crisis, some immigration groups say. Discontent was visible in the results of the European Parliament elections last month, in which Spain’s conservative opposition party, the Partido Popular, won two seats more than the governing Socialists.

The economic crisis has hit Spain especially hard. The unemployment levels are the highest in the European Union, reaching 17.36 percent in the first quarter of 2009. The figures are even more alarming for the immigrant population: the National Statistics Institute reports that for the same period, unemployment among immigrants grew to a staggering 28.39 percent.

Immigrants Blamed for the Crisis

Secretary of State for Migration Consuelo Rumi said recently that the Spanish government would not tolerate discrimination against immigrant workers. “Workers –whether Spanish or immigrant– are not the ones responsible for the crisis,” she said. Yet immigrant organizations criticize government policies they see as directly linking the crisis to immigration.

“In the height of an economic crisis, the government and the opposition parties are talking about measures such as enforcing the borders, the Voluntary Return Plan, the European Return Directive, ‘blue cards’ only for eligible migrants, limiting family reunification — all of these portray immigration as the primary culprit for the crisis,” said Raúl Jiménez, spokesperson for Ecuadorian organization Rumiñahui in Madrid.

Last September, Spain introduced its Voluntary Return Plan, criticized by many immigrant organizations. Under the plan, immigrants who are collecting unemployment benefits could receive their payments in two lump sums if they return to their countries and renounce their Spanish residency. While the government has invested in advertising campaigns, so far the response from immigrants has been low. The A.P. reported in June that only 6,100 people have so far returned home under the plan.

An immigrant demonstrates at an immigration detention center in Madrid. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

An immigrant demonstrates at an immigration detention center in Madrid. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

A report published earlier this year by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington D.C., suggests that return migration is correlated more closely with the political, economic and social situation at home rather than in the receiving country. As has likely happened with many immigrants in the U.S., many migrants in Spain are trying to hold on as long as they can, knowing that if the situation is bad here, it is likely to be worse back in Ecuador, Colombia or Peru.

Out of approximately 45,000 Ecuadorians who are not currently working, only about 1,700 have returned under the Spanish plan, says Raúl Jiménez of Rumiñahui. Ecuadorians are the largest group of Latin American immigrants in Spain, and the third largest immigrant group in the country after Moroccans and Romanians.

“We tell them to think hard” about the Voluntary Return Plan and take note of the small print, says Jiménez. In addition to turning in their residency permits, immigrants who leave under the plan cannot attempt to return to Spain for the next three years. Even then, their entrance is not guaranteed.

Undocumented workers in Spain often face exploitative and precarious working conditions. For several days in early June, newspapers in Spain wrote about Franns Rilles Melgar, an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia. Melgar lost his arm to the dough machine in a bakery where he worked 12 hours a day for $32. According to the Melgar family, he was dropped off meters from the hospital entrance, bleeding from the wound. The owner of the bakery where he worked without a contract for over a year threw his severed flesh into the trash. Two days later, in return for his lost arm, Melgar was granted Spanish residency.

That is Spain for you, says Wilfredo Contreras Palomino, president of the Immigrant Network Committee in Madrid: “A worker first has to lose his arm before they’ll give him papers. It is an unjust reality of this country.”

Spain has granted two large regularizations in the past decade, the last one in 2005 when about 700,000 immigrants received documents. The regularizations came in response to the pressures of immigrant groups that had grown in presence as Spain’s then-booming economy attracted workers in sectors such as construction and the domestic service industry.

But with the economic downturn, immigrants are feeling increasingly targeted by what they perceive as the government’s discriminatory policies.

Contreras Palomino says that redadas –raids where documents are checked– are on the rise in neighborhoods such as his, where many immigrants have settled. He says these operations are based on racial profiling and happen on the streets, subway stations and other public places. In February, The A.P. reported that police unions and immigration groups in Spain have expressed their concern about the quotas imposed on police departments for arresting undocumented immigrants. A memo that was leaked to the Spanish press said that in one neighborhood police officers were instructed to arrest at least 30 undocumented people per week.

Estelbina Vera Ferreira’s boyfriend was deported to his native Ecuador from the detention center near Aluche metro station where the World Refugee Day protest took place. Most of his family remains in Spain, including his mother, who is a Spanish resident. The couple had been planning to marry in August.

“I will go to Ecuador and we will get married there,” says Ferreira, who is from Paraguay and is a Spanish resident. Together, they will then see how they can make it back to their families in Spain.

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AboutJelena Kopanja
Jelena Kopanja is former Feet in 2 Worlds contributor. She is a graduate of New York University’s Global and Joint Studies Program, with concentrations in Journalism and Latin American Studies. She was born in Bosnia, from where she brought her love of good coffee and baklava. Prior to her graduate work, she was involved in immigrant communities as an ESL volunteer instructor and an interpreter for Spanish and Bosnian.