According to the Fundación BBVA research institute, Spain now has the second-largest number of immigrants as a proportion of the population in the developed world, after the United States. But immigrants are now losing their jobs at more than twice the rate of Spaniards, raising fears that they will turn to crime.
To ward off social tensions, the Spanish government is now rethinking its immigration policy. In 2005, Zapatero angered other European leaders by giving a blanket amnesty to 800,000 illegal immigrants. By contrast, he now supports the European Union’s Return Directive for undocumented workers. His government also wants to restrict family immigration to parents and their children under 18. The law currently allows grandparents and in-laws to join their families.
In July 2008, the Spanish government launched a scheme to pay unemployed migrant workers to return to their country of origin. The plan offers documented migrants who have lost their jobs two lump sums, one before they leave Spain and the other once they have returned home. In exchange, immigrants are required to hand over their residence visas and work permits and agree not to return to Spain for at least three years. But so far there have been only around 4,000 takers, a tiny fraction of Spain’s immigrant population.
Spain now seems to be turning to more draconian measures. Police in major Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona have been given weekly quotas for arresting illegal immigrants. According to a leaked internal memo, police in Madrid have a weekly target of 35 arrests, with priority given to seizing Moroccans because they can be sent home quickly and cheaply.
The problem of runaway immigration was a major issue during Spain’s 2008 general election. Toward the end of the campaign, the race turned decisively in Zapatero’s favor after his main opponent called for a crackdown on illegal immigration. At the time, Zapatero said the proposals were inhumane and many Spanish voters seemed to agree. But Zapatero’s recent about-face suggests an emerging consensus that Spain has a real problem, and one it needs to address more effectively.