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.

By + More

If there is a group that is having particular trouble integrating, it is certainly the sub-Saharan Africans from Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and other countries who arrived in recent years by the tens of thousands in the Canary Islands after a perilous (for some thousands, deadly) sea journey on rickety wooden fishing boats called pateras. With the Canary Islands unable to handle the numbers of migrants, the Africans are routinely flown to Spain and given expulsion orders, which they then ignore. Recently, Spain has promised additional economic aid to African countries if they will take back their migrants, who often arrive without any national identity papers.

Africans, including Moroccans, now represent over 21 percent of the foreign population (compared with 30.5 percent for Latin Americans). Lacking knowledge of Spanish and with few skills, they survive as best they can, frequently staying in hostels and eating in dining rooms subsidized by charitable organizations. "I don't know anything about Spain," says Ale Eva, a 19-year-old Nigerian who arrived last December, standing not far from the stall where Patricia Sánchez sells flowers. "I want to work."

The impact of the illegal African immigration can be seen in Lavapiés, once a Jewish neighborhood in Madrid known for its bohemian lifestyle. It has become a global village with more than 80 nationalities represented and new shops selling Arab clothing and new restaurants such as Café Ali Baba. On a recent weekday, some 30 young African men, mobile phones stuck to their ears, stood aimlessly in an open square, warming themselves in the winter midday sun. "We used to go out in the evening to have an aperitif. Now we don't say even hello because we don't know anyone anymore," says a Spanish woman who has lived in Lavapiés for 50 years, as she watches the Africans on the square. "Maybe they are good people, better than me, but they don't inspire confidence."

Still, most Spaniards think immigration has helped more than hurt, at least until now. They point out that many immigrants, especially from Latin America, tend to be well educated, speak the language, and come from cultures that prize family, friendship, and solidarity. "I remember those values in Spanish society from many years ago," says Amparo García Estebaranz, who handles immigration issues for the Casa de América, which fosters cultural exchanges between Spain and Latin America. "[They are] values that we have been losing as we become rich."

Poor as he is, Danso, the Gambian beggar, exemplifies those values, too. Whenever he can, he sends 50 or 100 euros home to his family, including a 12-year-old daughter he has not seen in eight years. "I eat, I call my family, I help my family," he says. "And when I get papers, I'll change my situation." But shifting attitudes in Spain may make that change impossible.