Revision of law on immigrants under debate

Download article in original language : ES9911262FES.DOC

During 1999, following persistent demands from associations of immigrants, solidarity and integration associations, trade unions and left-wing political parties, Spain's 1985 Aliens' Law - which lays down the rules on immigrants, including employment issues - is being revised. In November, it was agreed that the legislative amendments would be dealt with urgently in parliament, in response to fears that the revision would not be carried out in the present legislature, and therefore postponed indefinitely.

Revisions to Spain's Organic Law 7/1985 on the Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners in Spain - commonly known as the Aliens' Law (Ley de extranjería) - have been under consideration in parliament during 1999. The legislation has a number of features that are widely regarded as making it problematic (ES9904214F). The main problem is the concept that non-EU immigrants to Spain are "workers who are passing through", and that they therefore do not enjoy certain rights that the Constitution and international treaties grant to all residents in the country. Furthermore, the necessity to have both residence and work permits has proved an insuperable obstacle for many immigrants In 1996, changes were made to the temporary nature of work permits and, albeit restrictively, permanent work permits began to be given. However, in practice the public administration has not yet accepted the undeniable reality that there are now many immigrants who intend to stay in Spain permanently.

To meet this new reality, the trade unions and left-wing political parties want an "immigrants' statute" to give immigrants full rights - and obligations - as members of the community. There are also many employers who want these workers to have greater stability and would like to recruit a greater number of them to meet their need for personnel. Recent studies have calculated - though perhaps with a vested interest - that in the next three years the need for immigrant labour could double the current figure of 800,000. However, such figures, of which no one can be sure at present, should be treated with extreme caution.

Demands of trade unions and associations

The trade unions and many specialist associations, grouped around the initiative Papers for all, no human being is illegal (Papeles para todos y todas, ningún ser humano es ilegal), propose taking a more integrated view of the immigration issue on the basis of several rulings by the Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) over recent years. An example of such an approach is provided by the most detailed proposal, that presented by the CC.OO union confederation, which is not too distant from the ideas of the UGT confederation and the Papers for all initiative

CC.OO proposes that the law should remedy social exclusion by offering immigrants fundamental human rights, including rights to: physical and moral integrity; freedom of ideology and religion; privacy and honour; freedom of expression, association and meeting; healthcare; and education and teaching. Other rights - such as the right to vote and to stand in local elections, freedom of circulation and residence, and access to certain jobs in the public administration - are also mentioned.

With regard to employment, CC.OO proposes that:

  • the necessity for work permits should be abolished, taking residence as the essential criteria (this is also proposed by some parliamentary groups);
  • to avoid arbitrariness, quotas of immigrants should be established annually after consultation with the social partners rather than by decision of the government (as is proposed in a legislative amendment by the conservative PP political party - see below);
  • the position of immigrants who are already in the country should be legalised if they prove that they have been settled there for two years; and
  • it should not be possible for residence permits to be lost once they have been obtained.

In general terms, both UGT and CC.OO demand solutions that do not involve reinforcing Spain's borders to the south or restrictive annual quotas on immigrants, which are the practices seen to be inspired by the European Union.

To sum up, for the trade unions and associations, it is not merely a question of increasing the rights of immigrants but also of protecting them against arbitrariness and the problems that may arise from, for example, the loss of a job. They claim that legislative amendments from the ruling PP, and some of those put forward by the socialist PSOE, restrict some of these rights.

The new bill

Since 1998, three proposals to reform the Aliens' Law have been put to the Spanish parliament: one by the Catalonia n nationalists of Convergencia i Unió (CIU) and two by the parliamentary left (NI-IC and IU). The other groups, PP and PSOE, which are the largest in the House, have presented partial proposals.

The current discussion document for reform of the law focuses on the following aspects:

  • the legislation would still be entitled the "Law on the Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners in Spain", but the words "and of their Social Integration" should be added;
  • permanent residence permits would be issued after five years of temporary residence, uninterrupted for two years, if the immigrants are registered and have sufficient income to subsist;
  • spouses and children who are under 18 or are disabled would be allowed to join immigrants in Spain;
  • there would be free healthcare, free basic and obligatory education for all those aged under 18, and legal aid for immigrants in the municipality in which they are registered;.
  • immigrants would have rights of meeting and association;
  • registered immigrants would be entitled to vote in municipal elections;
  • all immigrants who can prove that they were living in Spain before 1 June 1999 would be legalised, if they have asked for a residence permit; and
  • the government would decide on the quotas of immigrants each year.

The parties' various proposals vary in the extent to which they provide rights, and the final levels will be laid down by parliament. However, these proposals are already a very significant advance on the 1985 Law. Nevertheless, the current document maintains restrictive approaches on the entry of immigrants and leaves decisions on expulsion in hands of the Ministry of Interior.

In autumn 1999, trade unions and immigrants' associations claimed on several occasions that certain elements in the government were placing obstacles in the way of the new law in order to prevent it from being passed during the current legislature (which is expected to end in January 2000). If the law is postponed until the following legislature, with a different parliament, it could be modified in a different direction than envisaged at present, or even abandoned. Finally, on 10 November, it was agreed that the law would be progressed through an urgent procedure, after CIU lent its support to those who sought to speed up of the process.

Commentary

Once again it has proved that pressure from associations and "civil society" has been able to bring about advances beyond the changes that the government was resolved to carry out. Recent acts of exclusion against immigrants, which have been vigorously denounced, have influenced public opinion in favour of a law which provides for more integration.

It should be noted that a new law on immigration which aims to provide a wide recognition of civil rights for immigrants comes into conflict with European Union proposals that do not go in the same direction. The EU is willing to increase the quotas of immigrants, but still thinks in terms of "fortress Europe", which must be defended against certain outside influences. For example, the EU is more willing to open its frontiers to immigrants from the east than from the south. The conclusions of the European Council summit in Tampere in October 1999 (EU9910202F) provided a good example of this: annual quotas and reinforced borders are still proposed, and it is assumed that immigration is above all a problem of public order that must be dealt with mainly through better policing.

It is not a question of opening the border to all and sundry, without conditions or criteria. However, the number of entrance permits must be significantly increased and steps must be taken to facilitate the full integration of immigrants who wish to stay, and to give them the full rights and obligations of European citizens.

It has already been clearly demonstrated that immigrants do not take jobs from Europeans and that they are not habitual criminals, as some claim. However, It seems that we have learned little from a long period in which many Spaniards emigrated to central and northern Europe and often suffered serious restrictions to their rights. (Fausto Miguélez. QUIT).

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