A Slowing Economy Tests Spaniards' Views of Immigrants

Once a country of emigration itself, Spain has become a magnet for migrants from Africa and elsewhere.

An anti-immigration protest by an ultraright Spanish political party.

An anti-immigration protest by an ultraright Spanish political party.

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MADRID—Patricia Sánchez stands in front of her flower stand in Madrid's Tirso de Molina Square and speaks about her life as an immigrant in Spain. "My intention was to remain about three to six months and then return, like all immigrants say they will," she explains while showing a customer her roses, daisies, and bonsai plants. Seven years later, she is still here, a naturalized Spanish citizen with a good job that pays her 10 times what she made in her native Colombia. "I liked this country," she says. "I knew that I could never find the peace on the streets of Bogotá that I found here."

Just a few subway stops away, Lamin Danso stands at the entrance to the Church of St. Mary of Mount Carmel in Madrid's wealthy Salamanca neighborhood, begging for money. A native of Gambia in West Africa, Danso has been an illegal immigrant in Spain for five years, unable to work or acquire a work permit. "That's why I beg here," he says, "because I have no papers and I don't want to do something bad."

Sánchez arrived in Madrid by plane from Colombia on a three-month tourist visa when the owner of the travel agency where she worked asked that she accompany her to Spain after the wealthy boss received kidnapping threats. Her Colombian employer, who had businesses in Spain, provided housing and a job. Within three months, Sánchez had her first work permit. Danso entered Spain after a hazardous boat trip from Morocco to the Spanish-governed Canary Islands, 70 miles off the west coast of Morocco. This followed a three-year journey by foot and sometimes bus that took him through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, and Morocco. On the way, he worked as a fisherman, painter, and shoemaker. His only employment in Madrid has been as a temporary house cleaner and dog walker.

Waves of strangers. Sánchez and Danso represent two faces of immigration in Spain—one successful, the other the embryo of impending problems. The country has absorbed more than 3 million foreigners during the past decade, and immigrants now constitute more than 10 percent in a total population of 44 million people. In the process, Spain has become a test of how well a modern European nation can integrate waves of strangers, frequently from radically different cultures. The verdict is still out, but there are signs that trouble lies ahead. "The children of these first-generation immigrants are going to suffer from the politics of nonintegration," warns Kamal Rahmouni, president of the Moroccan Workers and Immigrants Association in Spain.

This comes as a remarkable change for a nation that, just a generation ago, was one of Europe's most homogenous and poor countries. Its successful transition from dictatorship to democracy and the nation's subsequent integration into the European Union transformed it from a country of emigration to a magnet for the poor from South America, eastern Europe, and, more recently, North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Help wanted. With the fastest-growing economy in the 13-member Eurozone in recent years, an aging population, and one of the lowest birthrates in the world, Spain needs laborers willing to do the manual tasks—building houses, picking fruit, serving tables, and taking care of children and the elderly—that native-born Spaniards no longer accept at any price. "Spain cannot afford not to have immigrants," says Rosa Yolanda Villavicencio, a Colombian immigrant who as a member of the Madrid region's autonomous parliament is one of only three foreign-born elected officials in Spain. "Its economic structure, economy, and demographics need the foreign workforce."

Indeed, with government programs to help immigrants limited and dispersed among regional authorities, the principal integrating factor has been the red-hot Spanish economy. Growth, fueled largely by the construction industry, averaged 3.1 percent over the past five years, and unemployment plummeted from almost 25 percent in 1994 to 8.6 percent last year. But as the economy cools, especially in the construction and agriculture sectors that employ large numbers of immigrants, there is concern that the relatively painless assimilation by newcomers into Spanish society may be a thing of the past.