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The International Writers Magazine: Immigration Law in Spain

Coffee for Everyone
James Skinner


‘In 1977, two years after the death of Generalissimo Franco, half way through the transition government that ended forty years of dictatorship and returned Spain to a democracy, Manuel Clavero Arevalo, the then Minister for Regional Affairs requested in Parliament that Andalucía should be served ‘the same coffee’ as that afforded to Cataluña, Galicia and the Basque Country. He was referring to three of the seventeen newly set up autonomous regions that had been offered ‘Nation’ status somehow differentiating them from the rest. The peculiar phrase has remained ever since as a standard in the Spanish vernacular for any event or situation that affects a vast majority of people.

However, it’s most notorious use has been over illegal immigration that has plagued Spain over the past few years. During the economic boom dating back to around 2000, hundreds of thousands of immigrants literally invaded the country and contributed to Spain’s growth by working as temporary unskilled labourers on the massive number of construction sites that were sprouting all over the country. When the present Socialist government decided to finally legalise the more than 2 million workers that had invaded Spain the opposition party vociferously denounced them as ‘irresponsible and ‘offering coffee’ to everyone!’ The European Union soon followed suit and sheepishly warned Spain of producing the ‘come hither’ effect to all those poor nations ‘south of the border’ as well as the conquered ones in Latin America. Moroccans, Algerians, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, you name it they turned up in droves. Many travelled further into the rest of Europe. The real downside was the number of international ‘human traders’ that sprouted up offering a good life and passage to the hungry, especially those in Africa for a few thousand Euros. Many ended in tragedy either by being lost at sea in an overcrowded wooden bathtub or the young and innocent women by selling their bodies at a trucker’s café.

Europe has been used to an influx of foreigners for decades. Since the formation of the European Union one of the fundamental pillars has been the ‘freedom of movement’ of its citizens. The Schengen agreement obliterated borders within continental Europe allowing all kinds of human beings to float in and out of the continent, including the illegal ones. However, the recent waves of Islamic terrorism has introduced a new dimension into the equation and the immigration ‘think tank’ in Brussels is probably hard at work trying to find a solution to the ‘freedom’ on the one hand and the ‘control’ of the undesirables on the other; yet another problem added to the economic downturn. But let’s get back to Spain’s unique immigration situation.

There is a small town about 50 miles from Barcelona called Vic. It has a population of around 30000 and its main industries are the slaughterhouses of all kinds of animals from pigs to sheep to chickens to cows. Because of the low level of skilled labour required at the ‘killing fields’ the influx of foreigners over the years has increased to such a level that at least 25% of the population are now non-Catalans. Nobody in Spain had ever heard of the town until a few weeks ago when the mayor Josep Maria Vila with the approval of his council decided to refuse registry to all those who were considered illegal immigrants. It hit the national media and there has been a national and political upheaval ever since that could add fuel to the European Union’s own troubled immigration policies. Here’s why.

I’ve explained it a number of times in the past but its worth repeating. Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous regions that in turn are divided into several hundred provinces with several thousand town councils. Although the country is governed by a national president elect and a parliamentary assembly, each region has its own president and parliament. Likewise, the town councils have their own mini-parliaments and political governors. The whole lot set their own rules and standards according to the whims of the political party in power at each place. Laws can conflict from one region to another, especially when it comes to the use of autonomous languages such as Galician and Catalan instead of Spanish. The town councils are even more divided, but without going into details there are two particular issues that are relevant to all and that affect every citizen living or resident in Spain. It is the ‘right of abode’ set by the country’s immigration laws on the one hand and the ‘obligation of registry’ set by the town councils on the other. This is where the conflict of Vic comes into play because the mayor has inadvertently uncovered that the rules of both edicts contradict each other. I’ll explain.

In most countries around the world, generally speaking, all foreigners who wish to work need a proper job contract that gives access to a residence permit. If they just wish to live without doing anything they’ve got to be a rich bum or a pensioner. Nevertheless, in all cases they still need that residence permit. Spain is no different. Anyone in the country that does not belong to one of these categories is considered illegal. However, the law also stipulates that all persons that are resident in a town council must register. The main reason, apart from statistical is that the budgetary distribution of national public funds for major projects is dependant on the number of inhabitants in each municipal district. Makes sense right? Ah! But the law includes everybody, including illegal immigrants. So, on the one hand you can only live in Spain if you’ve got a job, but if you haven’t you still have to go down to the town hall and put your thumb print on a piece of paper. But there is another reason why the Vic issue has caused a rumpus. Once you are registered you and your family are entitled to the social amenities offered by the council which include medical and educational facilities. No wonder half the country is up in arms! All you have to do if you happen to arrive here for a family jamboree is give your brother’s address and presto you can live here without working and be looked after by the state. All a legal illegality!

Poor old Josep put the cat amongst the pigeons when he tried to put a stop to the ‘coffee for everyone’ on his patch. The legal beagles began having a ball. The media hasn’t stopped talking about it. The judicial system is in a fix. The opposition party for once, hasn’t a clue how to attack the government in its constant infantile shouting match. The human rights activists, communists, anarchists and a plethora of other weirdo associations are in the limelight with their banners accusing the people of Vic of xenophobia, whilst the far right elements are ready to light the torches of doom denouncing the end of democracy.

There’s a caveat to this situation which is even more bizarre.

These seventeen regions have, as per the Spanish Constitution, their own statutes that determine the extent of their autonomy and can, as I explained earlier set their own laws and rules of government. However, there are three regions, Cataluña, Galicia and the Basque region that have always pushed for more and more self-determination seeking eventual full independence. In other words Spain is facing the possible break up as a nation similar to what happened in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. And this is no joke! In recent months, Cataluña has come to the fore and has re-written the rules of the game. Its statute has been revised and is presently before the Supreme Court for approval. In the meantime, they’re doing their own thing. The Barcelona HQ went one step further and organized a sort of mini-referendum, totally disallowed by the central government in Madrid to determine whether the Catalans were for or against ‘breaking away’ from Spain. This is where Monty Python’s Flying Circus comes in.

They didn’t try it out in the larger cities like Barcelona, Gerona or Lerida. Oh no! They went for some of the smaller populous areas including the town of Vic. On the 12th of December, 2009 to the amusement of all other Spaniards, some seven hundred thousand citizens turned up in over a hundred and seventy Catalan municipalities to cast their vote. Although turn out was around 30% the result was naturally in favour of independence. And guess what? The voters included all the illegal residents of Vic! The rest of Spain just looked the other way muttering, ‘the Catalans are at it again!’

One journalist summed it up, ‘at least the coffee is legal!’              

© James G. Skinner. Feb 1, 2010.

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