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.
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.
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.