Spain’s Socialist government on Thursday said opposition calls for immigrants to learn Spanish and respect Spanish customs were xenophobic, raising immigration issues ahead of next month’s national election.
Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy said on Wednesday immigrants should sign a legally binding contract promising to integrate into Spanish society, a move compared here to plans backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in France.
“Who’s going to say which customs are right or not?” Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said at a news conference, calling the proposals “smoke with a whiff of xenophobia”.
Rajoy said immigrants would have to leave the country if they cannot find work after a year and will be expelled if they commit crimes. The end of a building boom is leaving Spain with a large population of unemployed foreigners for the first time.
Both major parties favour continuing immigration into Spain, and neither wants to see any reduction. The majority of economic immigrants are Moroccans, Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose party is leading polls, said Rajoy’s proposals were unnecessary and pointed to his own efforts to expel illegal immigrants.
“For the past year-and-a-half we have been making a great effort on repatriation,” he said.
Immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, with an explosion in economic growth in the first half of the decade pushing the number of foreign residents to over 4 million for the first time in 2006, or about 9 percent of the population.
Although the influx has not heightened tensions to the degree seen in other Western European countries with high levels of foreign residents, Spaniards regularly rank “immigration” as one of their main worries in opinion polls.
The PP’s stance could set a dangerous precedent in the election campaign, said Mauricio Valiente, spokesman of the Spanish Commission for Help for Refugees.
“He’s trying to present a tough image against immigration, associating it with criminality. It’s a dangerous argument,” he said.