As Economy Slumps, Spanish Regions Seek To Control Immigration

Spanish regions seek to control immigration

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 11:42:00 05/04/2008

The conservative government of Valencia, which includes the popular resort town of Benidorm, is drafting a law urging immigrants to sign an “integration contract” that commits them to respect local values and learn Spanish as well as Valencian, the local language.

Rafael Blasco, Valencia's councillor for immigration, said Tuesday that while contract would not be mandatory, not signing it would suggest “a desire not to integrate into our way of life.”

“It could have consequences for the relationship between these people and the authorities and institutions,” he told radio Cadena Ser.

Ruminahui, an organization that helps people from Ecuador, has denounced the measure, saying it hides a “buried campaign against immigration, that criminalizes it and blames it for problems not solved by the government.”

The left-wing government of the northeastern region of Catalonia meanwhile unveiled plans on Monday to limit the number of immigrants enrolled in schools in each district as part of a regional education law aimed at avoiding the creation of ghettos.

The measure will apply to public schools and colleges in the region, whose capital Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city.

The regions are acting as Spain faces its first economic slowdown since it transformed itself over the past decade from a country of emigration to a magnet for immigrants, mainly from Spanish-speaking Latin America.

The number of immigrants living in Spain has soared from around half a million in 1996 to about 4.5 million, or 10 percent, of a total population of 45 million.

They were drawn by an economy that led job creation in Europe in recent years.

Many immigrants are employed to do manual tasks such as building houses, picking fruit, taking care of children or serving tables that native-born Spaniards no longer accept at any price.

But the economy began to cool last year, especially in the construction sector that employs large numbers of immigrants, as a once-buoyant housing sector was hit by rising interest rates and the global credit crunch.

The government predicts gross domestic product will rise 2.3 percent this year and next after growing 3.8 percent in 2007, with unemployment seen at 10 percent by the end of 2009 from 8.6 percent at the end of last year.

The “integration contract” proposed by the regional government of Valencia is similar to one called for by the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) in the run-up to a March 9 general election.

It was the first time in a Spanish general election that a major party made immigration a central issue.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was re-elected with a slightly bigger majority in a March general election, declared an amnesty in 2005 for about 600,000 illegal immigrants.

But his government is now proposing to provide microcredits to unemployed immigrants who want to return home.

It will also allow them to collect the monthly unemployment benefits which they are entitled all at once to help finance their return.

“Many of them will perhaps decide to return to their countries,” Zapatero said Monday during an interview with public television TVE when asked about rising unemployment and the country immigrant population.

He recalled that countries such as Ecuador and Romania, key sources of immigrants to Spain, are encouraging their citizens to return home to make up for labor shortages or in the hope that they will invest in the local economy.