Spain Cools To Its Wave Of Immigrants

Spain cools to its wave of immigrants

By Victoria Burnett
International Herald Tribune
Published: March 4, 2008

MADRID: Until recently, Laurentiu Cuciureanu's story was a happily typical tale of immigrant life in Spain. The 34-year-old Romanian, who shares a tiny but spotless apartment in central Madrid with his wife and a family friend, earned around 16,000 a year as a construction worker. With a mortgage from a Spanish bank, he had bought a house in Iasi, his hometown.

But five weeks ago Cuciureanu lost his job, joining a growing number of immigrants thrown out of work as economic growth, driven by a once-booming construction industry, has slowed.

As politicians campaign for the general election on Sunday, people like Cuciureanu have become the focus of a debate about whether Spain can cope with the five million immigrants who have streamed across its borders over the past 10 years.

With much less friction than many of its European neighbors, Spain has absorbed the army of foreign workers who care for its elderly, build its houses and serve at its tables. But as the job market tightens, more people are asking whether there is room for everyone and whether enough has been done to integrate immigrants.

Mariano Rajoy, the conservative challenger who leads the Popular Party, seized on these fears last month when he proposed a code of conduct for immigrants that would include a promise to return home if they could not find a job. Rajoy's proposal that all long-term immigrants pledge to “abide by the laws, respect Spanish values, learn the language and pay taxes” sparked outrage among immigrants and liberals.

“It makes me really nervous to hear people talking like this. I pay my taxes, I obey the laws, I work,” said Cuciureanu, who received a work permit when the Socialist government gave about 600,000 illegal immigrants amnesty in 2005. “In this household, Rajoy is considered a racist.”

While the Popular Party's election platform has been dismissed as xenophobic by liberal critics, it has prompted debate across the political spectrum and seems to have struck a chord with voters who are worried about competing for jobs and about the burden that unemployed immigrants could become for Spanish taxpayers.

Writing in the liberal daily El Pas last week, Ruth Rubio, professor of constitutional law at the University of Seville, said Rajoy's immigration charter was “of dubious legitimacy and effectiveness.” However, she wrote, “it is healthy that we should begin, at last, to discuss the opportunities and challenges implied by the integration of immigrants.”

Guillermo Castro, a 30-year-old truck driver who lives in the heavily immigrant town of Alcal de Henares, near Madrid, said he was worried Spain was being overwhelmed.

“They should have taken measures to get this under control a long time ago,” said Castro, who normally votes Socialist but is unsure this time around. “This is a free world, but you can't just open your doors to everyone. The French and the Italians want to kick out all their immigrants. And where are they going to go? To Spain.”

Carlos Martn, an economist at the Spanish Federation of Trade Unions, says immigrant workers' families, who can join them after they have worked legally in Spain for a year, place an unsustainable strain on the welfare state. Spain offers health care to all immigrants, whether legal or not, and demands that their children attend school.

“Our welfare state is a huge attraction for immigrants,” he said. “Our economy is slowing, but the flow of immigrants is not. After a year of working legally in this country, you can bring your kids, your parents, your spouse. It's one of the most generous systems in Europe.”

Martn said government initiatives, like the system that allows employers to hire workers in their country of origin, should be extended and made more accessible to small companies. The system is popular with some of Spain's large corporations but too expensive and time-consuming for a small business, he said.

The Popular Party's aggressive immigration platform caught the governing Socialists off-guard and forced them onto uncomfortable political territory, Socialist party strategists said.

“It's hard for a Socialist party to open debate about closing borders to immigrants. It's inherently awkward,” said Oscar Lpez, a senior Socialist party strategist. The Popular Party had spun a populist narrative of rising unemployment and crime among immigrants, borrowed from other rightist European parties, he said.

In two televised debates, Rajoy repeatedly raised the immigration issue, accusing Prime Minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero, a Socialist, of lax controls and inadequate investment in integration. Zapatero ducked the immigration question twice during the first debate, on Feb. 25, but defended the government's record in the final encounter Monday night, saying the conservatives also offered amnesties when in power and pointing to the thousands of illegal immigrants repatriated under Socialist rule.

Regardless of who wins on March 9, Spain needs a more open, mature debate about immigration and integration, an issue other European countries have had decades to deal with, politicians and analysts said.

“Immigration becomes toxic politics when the economy slows down and jobs aren't being created at the same rate,” Denis MacShane, a British member of Parliament from the Labour Party and a former minister of state for Europe, said in a telephone interview.

But the “temptation of the left is to say it's a false concern and that voters worried about immigrants are racist,” he said.

“Every country in Europe has a set of values that is neither the property of the right or the left,” he added. “We talk a lot in Britain about values, and we're comfortable as a modern Labour Party asserting those.”

Cuciureanu, who is entitled to claim about 700 a month in unemployment benefits for 10 months, said he had no intention of returning to Romania and was confident he would find a job soon.

“My life is here right now,” he said. “I don't see myself as an immigrant. I see myself as a resident, a working man.”