Immigration: Zapatero's gamble
From today a major overhaul of the law will make it easier for illegal immigrants to get legal status as Spain tries to tackle the burgeoning labour 'black economy'. But will it work?
From today Spain's Socialist government embarks on a bold gamble with immigration, one of the biggest issues facing the country.
In an effort to bring illegal immigrants into the state system, the government plans to make it easier for them to get residence permits.
The idea behind this is to stop so-called 'clandestinos' (illegal immigrants) working in the black economy and to get them to pay taxes and social security.
The exact size of the black in economy in Spain is not known though estimates put the number working outside the law at 800,000.
It ranks as one of the main reasons immigrants chose to come to Spain; they can disappear more easily than if they were in Britain or France and find work relatively easily.
At the same time, Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe and a growing population of pensioners.
Commentators of varying political persuasions have said the country needs more immigrants to pay social security and taxes in order that the State can support the elderly.
They also claim these people are essential to do the jobs many Spaniards regard as below them, despite an unemployment level of 10 percent.
But knowing that welcoming more immigrants into the system might have serious social and political repercussions, prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has sought to strike a deal with business leaders and the unions to ensure these changes are accepted.
Jesus Caldera, the minister for work and social affairs, has agreed a deal with the CEOE, the confederation of Spanish businesses and the two biggest unions, the UGT and the CC OO.
The new Foreigners' Law
From today (7 February), the Socialist government's reform of the existing Foreigners' Law comes in to action.
It means Spain will grant residence permits to immigrants who can provide proof of their registration with a local council from before 8 August last year, proof they have no criminal record and a work contract of six months.
The length of contract can vary depending on the industry, with three months for agricultural workers and for domestic workers weekly contracts of 30 hours. Employers have until 7 May to provide contracts to local authorities.
Once they fulfil these conditions and are given conditional approval, immigrants are registered with the social security authorities and start paying contributions to the system.
The government will also want to grant residence permits to those immigrants who blow the whistle on unscrupulous employers — bosses who hire immigrants without a work contract.
Immigration Secretary Consuelo Rumi said the plans were about "easy the integration of foreigners" and also about fighting the black market in immigrant labour.
"This does not mean we are going to give papers to all foreigners. Let that be very clear," she said.
The government also intends to promote legal immigration by delivering three-month visas, designed to give immigrants time to find work in Spain before applying for residence.
Residents of countries which feed most of the illegal migration towards Spain will be given priority for visas.
Currently about 2.6 million foreigners live in Spain, which has a population of 43.2
million, including more than a million illegal immigrants, of whom one third
are Ecuadoran, followed by Colombians, Romanians, Moroccans, Argentinians,
Bulgarians and Ukrainians.
According to a government study, of the 17.24 million jobs in Spain, 850,000 or 4.9 percent, are occupied by immigrants with 34 percent of positions created last year taken by immigrants.
Zapatero had promised an "organised and legal immigration" when his government came into power last April.
Praise and criticism
But, understandably, the plan has provoked strong reactions from both supporters and critics.
Almudena Fontecha, immigration spokeswoman for one of Spain's largest unions, the UGT, said: "Now there will exist a guarantee for those immigrants who have a contract and have enrolled in the social security system and who support the system."
But the Spanish Commission of Refugee Aid (CEAR) said the conditions imposed by
the government limit the chances of certain immigrants, in particular those from Africa or at countries war who have trouble getting a copy of the necessary documents or who simply don't have a passport.
CEAR said the government only wanted to grant legal status to "people capable of working who can pay for social security, they aren't regularising children, the elderly and people without work".
And Ana Pastor, the social affairs spokeswoman for the opposition conservative Popular Party, said: "This has not done anything but create more tension and will mean foreigners will be sacked."
Critics believe nothing will change and the vast black economy will carry on unabated. Those who ask for contracts will simply be fired.
An electronic system is used to detect boatloads of migrants
Mohammed, 20, a Bangladeshi, who speaks no Spanish, smiled when we informed him of the changes.
"No work, no friends, no family," he said. "I want to be a waiter."
But in contrast, Katia, a Peruvian in her 30s who worked as a dietician in her own country, said: "What I have seen since I came here is a lot of exploitation. I think these reforms will be a positive thing."
Europe's front line
Against this background, Spain has another battle against illegal immigration on its borders.
Last weekend, coastguards picked up 228 Africans in one leaky boat off the coast of the Canary Islands. They had been living on sweets while they made the precarious crossing to Spanish territory.
Madrid is to ask the European Union for increased funds, to strengthen border controls and facilitate the expulsion of illegal immigrants — arguing that Spain is at the frontline of what is a Europe-wide problem.
"Twenty-three percent of clandestine immigrants who manage to enter Europe do so via Spanish territory," Rumi said.
Spain faces a steady tide of people, mainly north and sub-Saharan Africans, trying to reach the European Union either by the Canary Islands or across the Strait of Gibraltar separating Morocco and Spain at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.
Non-governmental organisations estimate that at least one million people, out of Spain's 2.6 million-strong immigrant population, are in Spain illegally. Most are Moroccans and Latin Americans.
Authorities in Morocco, one of the main departure points for immigrants bound for Spain, have already stepped up their cooperation with Spain in the fight against illegal immigration.
At the same time, people-smuggling gangs have started to ferry boatloads of people from coastal west Africa towards the Canary Islands.
Spain has recently discovered that even the most sophisticated police technology is unable to stem the tide of immigrants at its southern border.
For some years, Spanish police have been using an electronic surveillance system known as SIVE, which includes watchtowers and mobile units with radars and infra-red thermal cameras.
The system detects the small boats or 'pateras' as they are known, as soon as they leave the shores of Morocco.
As a result of using the SIVE system, the number of people arriving by boat from Africa went down by 17 percent to 11,473 to the end of September, the Spanish daily El Pais claimed.
But still relief organisations say they cannot cope with the daily arrivals.
updated February 2005
Subject: Spain, Immigration changes; News channel