Almost 700,000 immigrants have applied for work and residence permits in Spain under the largest amnesty for illegal aliens ever undertaken in Europe.
Jesús Caldera, labour minister, said yesterday the three-month registration drive that ended on Saturday had been a huge success.
Spain’s Socialist government has defended its generous amnesty for illegal immigrants on the grounds that it will end the exploitation of undocumented workers in the country’s large underground economy.
Immigrants who presented both a job contract and proof they had been living in Spain for at least six months will be entitled to work and residence permits for the duration of their employment.
Mr Caldera estimates the amnesty will swell social security contributions by up to €1.5bn ($1.9bn, £1bn) over the next year. He vowed to crack down on employers who continued to make use of undocumented labour, saying the government planned to inspect more than half a million work places this year.
Critics of the amnesty say the regularisation of foreign workers will not end the flow of illegal immigrants, and may even encourage more. Within the European Union, Spain’s policy has raised fears that immigrants will use their residency cards to move deeper into Europe.
The Socialist government’s effort to end the exploitation of illegal labour has, meanwhile, coincided with a dramatic turn in sentiment against Spain’s immigrant community, which has grown five-fold since 1999.
Spain’s population census, updated last month by the National Statistics Institute, registered an increase of 650,000 foreign residents since January 2004, bringing their total to 3.69m, or 8.4 per cent of the population of 44m. In 1999, fewer than 750,000 foreigners resided in Spain. Racism is on the rise. Residents of Villaverde, a poor neighbourhood in southern Madrid, went on the rampage last week, attacking immigrant-owned shops and chasing Africans and Latin Americans off the streets, following the murder of a Spanish youth. “We want immigrants, not criminals,” the residents chanted.
The European Observatory against Racism, based in Vienna, says Spanish intolerance is hardening as immigrants are increasingly associated with crime and terrorism. SOS Racismo, a Spanish charity, has detected an increase in the activities of extreme rightwing groups, most notably in the terraces of soccer stadiums, where skinheads, known as “Ultras”, pelt black players with bananas. SOS Racismo says there are more than 400 websites linked to extreme rightwing groups in Spain.
The organisation is also critical of the government’s amnesty. “It is only a stop-gap measure,” says Begoña Sánchez of SOS Racismo. “In a year’s time, we will have the same problem if work contracts are not renewed.”
Ms Sánchez says more attention needs to be paid to integrate immigrants into Spanish society. “The government needs to show more political courage to transform its words into deeds.”
But José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister, defends the amnesty and his government’s efforts to fashion an immigration policy that is linked to the job needs of Spain’s booming economy.
“We are creating order where there was chaos,” Mr Zapatero said in a television interview. “It would have been cynical and hypocritical if we had done nothing to end the abuse of illegal labour in Spain.”
Nevertheless, trade unions and immigrant associations accuse some employers of taking advantage of the amnesty to exploit their illegal workers further.
According to Comisiones Obreras, Spain’s largest trade union, employers in Murcia are charging illegal immigrants as much as €5,000 for a job contract in the agricultural region on the Mediterranean coast. Cajamar, a local savings bank, says 30 per cent of Murcia’s labour force works in the underground economy.
“Employers are resisting the amnesty, and the obligation to regularise their workers, because it will cut into their profit margins,” says Atime, an association of Moroccan migrant workers.
People-smuggling mafias are bringing in east Europeans with false residence addresses in Spain. The number of Romanians living in Spain has risen 50 per cent in the past year to 314,000. But Mr Caldera says Spain’s social security system has been geared to detect fraud.
“Alarms go off when too many foreigners are registered in one address, or when one family wants to employ more than three maids, or when business start-ups want to employ more than 10 immigrants.” As a result, Mr Caldera expects many immigrant applications to be rejected.