Immigration: Spain, the new Arizona

We won't even give you a lift. Spanish Civil Guard escorting a Morrocan immigrant, in Tarifa, on the south coast.
We won't even give you a lift. Spanish Civil Guard escorting a Morrocan immigrant, in Tarifa, on the south coast.
25 May 2010 – El Mundo (Madrid)

Arizona’s tough new law on illegal aliens is making headlines, but mass arrests of suspected illegals are increasingly the order of the day in Spain, especially in the current recession.

Half the world is up in arms about Arizona’s new law allowing police to detain anyone even suspected of being an illegal alien on US soil. But the same thing is happening here in Spain. The police are on a crusade to catch undocumented immigrants, launching one massive raid after another in various Spanish cities. The dragnets have been roaming the country, by order of the interior ministry, ever since the recession set in and the nation of “papers for everyone” starting U-turning on immigration policy and public attitudes towards newcomers from overseas.

Nowadays, the “wetbacks” who take small boats across the “Rio Grande” of the Straits of Gibraltar or jump the barbed wire fence at Barajas or El Prat [Madrid and Barcelona airports, respectively] get treated to an Iberian brand of the Arizona dream: cops tracking them down in the metro, at international call shops, soup kitchens, schools, health care centres and NGOs, and taking them in solely on the basis of racial profiling. The government is facing opposition to this crusade not only from immigrants associations and social organisations, but also from the ranks of the police force itself, as well as lawyers, economists, researchers and academics, even members of the conservative People’s Party (PP). They all say the methods and attitudes have grown harsher over the past few years, amid a climate of mounting suspicion towards the immigrant population. This trend is largely due to the recession, the upcoming regional and municipal elections in 2011, and knock-on effects from our European neighbours.

Public opinion turning against immigrants

A couple of months ago the Racism and Xenophobia Observatory, a department of the Ministry of Labour and Immigration, put out a study warning that the recession is breeding a “mounting rejection” of foreigners. Likewise, the Fundación Ideas, affiliated with the Socialist Party (PSOE), recently said “we should be on the alert” for discriminatory attitudes and “take action before it is too late”. “The controversial decision of the Vic town council (in Catalonia, coalition between right-wing nationalists, socialists and left-wing separatists) to compile a register of illegal immigrants should be taken seriously, if only on account of the alarming amount of public support and even political backing for the proposal,” urges Fundación Ideas. Moreover, a 2008 study on “Youth and Immigration” by the Injuve Institute showed that 14% of teenagers would be inclined to vote for a racist party, as against 11% back in 2002.

Is public opinion increasingly turning against immigrants? “I think so,” says José Miguel Sánchez Tomás, a criminal law professor at Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. “In economic boom times we get swept up in a wave of solidarity, but things change when competition for jobs sets in.” Sánchez Tomás, a member of the Grupo Inmigrapenal association, detects “certain traces of xenophobia in the public administration”. Police officials don’t deny it, admitting that the controversial measures taken in Vic and Llavaneras (another Catalonian municipality) “are stirring up racism towards immigrants”. José María Benito, spokesman for the leading trade union (SUP) in the police force, which has denounced the large-scale raids, says, “We still have to carry them out. Though nowadays the police chiefs don’t put it in writing, the orders are issued orally.”

Immigrants are needed, now and in future

Sociologist Sebastian Rinken from the CSIC (a Spanish think tank) notes that “accusations of unequal treatment are spreading” and deplores the fact that “public debate nowadays often boils down to fairly simplistic arguments aimed at instrumentalising this perceived injustice for electioneering purposes”. Rinken regards these large-scale dragnets as “rapid and attention-grabbing ploys to appease the disenchanted”. “The point is not to take effective action, but to say, ‘Look, we are doing something.’ Though that’s not the right way to do it,” he adds.

“Spain has no clear-cut immigration policy,” concludes Pablo Vázquez, president of the Foundation for Studies in Applied Economics (Fedea). “The government has cracked down since the crisis, but nobody here is saying how many foreigners we want or on what terms we want them.” Like many others, Vázquez believes that the selfsame immigrants currently serving as the scapegoats of the recession “are needed, now and in future, for our economic recovery” – if, that is, the Arizona dragnet hasn’t whisked them away in the meantime.

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