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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Polls show that immigration has become a major concern, with many Spaniards blaming immigrants for crime and other problems. Furthermore, social workers, government officials, and law enforcement officers are casting nervous looks northward to France, where disenfranchised second- and third-generation Muslim immigrant youths took to the streets in nationwide riots more than two years ago. They fear a replay of the same scenario unless Spain can avoid some of France's mistakes, such as creating ghettos where immigrants live apart from mainstream society.

But it may already be too late. "We have been incapable of creating an integration model in Spain," says Emilio Gallego Zuazo, secretary general of the Spanish Federation of the Hotel and Restaurant Industry, which counts more than 20 percent of foreign-born workers among its 1 million-plus members. "It's been a bit laissez faire, without planning, structure, or investment. In the long run, this can have important consequences."

These concerns have only grown since the March 11, 2004, Madrid commuter train bombings that killed 191 people and that investigators attributed to the al Qaeda network. Of the 28 men brought to trial in the attack, only nine were Spanish citizens. The subsequent arrest of hundreds of alleged Islamic militants in connection with the bombings or suspected of recruiting fighters for terrorist networks in Iraq and elsewhere further increased apprehension about Arab immigrants. "Muslims are suspected in advance, and we must dedicate every day to proving we are good people," says Rahmouni of the Moroccan workers organization.

Among Spain's immigrants, Moroccans—some 650,000—are the largest group, followed by Romanians and Ecuadoreans, according to government figures. Community leaders claim the large group of Muslim immigrants is integrating easily and say it is willing to give up traditional mores such as polygamy that are illegal under Spanish law. "As long as cultural traditions do not conflict with the law, they should be respected," says Yusuf Fernández, a native Spaniard who converted to Islam and is now president of the Muslim Federation of Spain. "Spanish society must learn to accept diversity. It has to learn to see immigrants through a positive prism. We need to break vicious circles."

Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. Sensing a nascent anti-immigrant movement, the right-wing opposition Popular Party politicized the issue for the first time during the recent parliamentary election campaign. Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, who was defeated by the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the March 9 vote, called immigration a serious problem for Spanish society and proposed an "integration contract" calling for the expulsion of immigrants convicted of crimes or who are unable to find a job and support themselves. The pact also called on immigrants to learn Spanish and respect Spanish customs.

That strikes some as political pandering. "We don't know if practicing the siesta, going to bullfights, and eating paella are among the Spanish customs that we must follow," Rahmouni jokes in an interview. "We should talk about the values we share with Europe, not Spanish customs."

The growth of Spain's foreign-born population over the past decade is indeed stunning. Official government figures show that the number of foreigners with residency cards more than doubled over the past four years to almost 4 million, though independent experts put the real number, counting legal and illegal immigrants, at closer to 5 million, or nearly 12 percent of the total population. The increase is in large part due to the legalization in 2005 of over 578,000 illegal immigrants by the socialist government. An additional half-million illegal immigrants were given residency papers during the eight years of the previous conservative government.

Domestic support. The legalizations, though criticized by some European leaders on grounds that such actions encourage further illegal immigration, received widespread domestic support. Advocates say it is impossible to expel 1 million people and point out that taxes paid by migrants are keeping the social security system afloat. "We need to be pragmatic," says Zuazo of the hotel and restaurant employees federation.