Spain Tries to Buy Out Immigrants

Lisa Abend, Time, October 20, 2008

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{snip} Spain’s new Plan of Voluntary Return, which goes into effect Monday, entitles legal immigrants who have lost their jobs to receive unemployment benefits as a lump sum payment—as long as they agree to leave the country. Participants must turn in their residence permits and work visas and promise not to return to Spain for three years. In exchange, they receive 40% of their total unemployment payouts before departing and the remaining 60% once they are home—an expected average of just over $40,000 in total.

The measure is one attempt to solve Spain’s growing unemployment problem. With joblessness recently reaching a 15-year high of 11.3%, the country’s 4 million documented immigrants are feeling the pinch acutely. Unemployment among them is up 67.1% on average over 2007. Between April and August of this year, the number of immigrants receiving unemployment jumped from 165,217 to 280,298.

The Plan of Return also represents a sea change in the Spanish government’s once famously lenient immigration policies. Three years after offering work and residency papers to 750,000 migrants in a massive legalization, Prime Minister Jos[ a {e}] Luis Rodr[a {i}]guez Zapatero has gone on record supporting the European Union’s controversial Return Directive, which allows members states to hold undocumented migrants for up to 18 months. His government is also spending greater resources on preventing migrant-laden boats from reaching Spanish shores, and is studying a plan to restrict regroupment immigration to parents and their under-18 children. (Currently, the law also allows grandparents and in-laws of legal migrants to join their families.) “Politicians respond to public-opinion polls,” says Federico Winer, a journalist who writes on immigration issues for Tribuna Latina, an online newspaper directed at Spain’s Latin-American community. “And what the polls are telling them is that people are saying ‘Basta. It’s time to close the door.’”

{snip}”Until recently, while the economy was booming, immigrants were the solution,” says Kamal Rahmouni, president of the Association of Moroccan Immigrant Workers in Spain (ATIME). “Now it’s as if they’re saying immigrants are the problem. The plan tells society that immigrants are responsible for the economic crisis.”

{snip} Ecuador makes up the second-largest source of migrants to Spain, but so far, only 186 Ecuadorans have signed up to return. Moroccans, who comprise the single largest immigrant group in Spain, are perhaps even more reluctant. In a poll conducted by ATIME, only 8% said they would be willing to renounce their visas and return to Morocco for three years in exchange for the payout.

{snip} But there’s an even more compelling answer, and it has to do with why new residents immigrated in the first place. “I came for a better life,” says Cadena, “and I got it. Food, clothing, my apartment—they’re all better here than in Bolivia. I’m not interested in going back.”

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