A steady influx of immigrants helped turn Spain into Europe’s miracle economy. Now, with economic angst rising, immigration is turning into a hot-button political issue in Spain—and across Europe.
As Sunday’s election approaches, Spain’s Popular Party is challenging the generous immigration policies of the Socialist government, which over the past four years has welcomed a flood of immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
The conservative party is proposing a crackdown, including a contract committing immigrants to learn the Spanish language and customs. It’s an 11th-hour gambit that feeds into a debate raging across the Continent. This year, France plans to use its stint as rotating president of the European Union to toughen measures across the EU.
Now that Spain’s decade-long housing boom—the country’s primary economic-growth and job-creation engine—is coming to an end, however, the tables are turning.
Government data released Tuesday showed the unemployment rolls swelled to 2.32 million in February, the highest figure since June 1998. The latest overall unemployment rate, compiled by the national statistics institute and commonly used for international comparison, was 8.6% in the fourth quarter last year, up from 8.03% in the third quarter.
Last September, immigration ranked as Spaniards’ No. 1 worry for the first time, beating out traditional top worries of terrorism and unemployment, according to the monthly public-opinion survey by government polling agency Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas.
Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy is seizing on those creeping worries to push his case before voters. ‘We need order and control,’ Mr. Rajoy told Mr. Zapatero during a televised debate earlier this week. ‘Immigrants have rights. But Spaniards do, too.’
Mr. Rajoy is proposing to bar all further amnesties of undocumented workers. He wants all newcomers to sign a contract whereby they agree to respect the law, pay taxes, and to assimilate into Spanish society by embracing the country’s language and customs.