Law on Foreign Persons to be reformed

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In July 2000, Spain's conservative government approved a draft reform of the Law on Foreign Persons, which will be put to parliament in September. The project has been severely criticised by left-wing parties, trade unions and immigrant associations, as it reduces immigrants' rights as well as strengthening measures against their illegal entry and employment.

The Law on Foreign Persons (Ley de Extranjería) was passed at the end of 1999 with the support of all political groups except the People's Party (Partido Popular, PP), which at the time formed a minority government and immediately announced its intention to reform the law (ES0004183F). Amending the Law on Foreign Persons was one of the government's first initiatives after the general elections in March 2000, in which PP obtained an absolute majority. The government considers that the prevailing law is too permissive with regard to illegal immigrants, may lead to a sharp rise in the number of illegal immigrants in the next few years, and is in clear contradiction with the basic principles of the immigration policy of the European Union.

The draft reform of the law approved by the government on 7 July 2000 imposes sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants and raises the penalties for the criminal groups that organise the illegal entry of immigrants. However, the draft also involves a substantial reduction in the rights of non-EU immigrants, especially illegal ones, an increase in the discretionary powers of the administration to control immigrant flows, and stricter "regularisation" procedures. The main changes to be introduced are that:

  • illegal immigrants will be entitled only to emergency healthcare, obligatory education and effective legal representation. The right to assemble, to associate, to join trade unions and to strike will be restricted to legal immigrants;
  • illegal residence in Spain will once again be a cause for repatriation. Illegal immigrants may be repatriated through a special procedure within 48 hours;
  • the refusal of an entry visa will no longer require justification, unless the visa is requested for reuniting families or for an offer of employment. This "negative administrative silence" will also be applied generally, except for the renewal of residence or work permits;
  • in order to qualify for the permanent regularisation procedure, illegal immigrants will have to prove that that have been residing in Spain uninterruptedly for at least five years (instead of the current two); and
  • for resident immigrants, the possibility of uniting families for humanitarian reasons will be restricted to spouses, children or parents.

The PP's absolute majority in parliament and the probable support of some centre-right nationalist parties should guarantee the passage of this reform, in spite of rejection by the other parliamentary groups, trade unions, immigrant associations and other organisations, which consider that this reform goes against the rights of immigrants and threatens their integration in society. In their opinion, it marks a return to a restrictive immigration policy and strict policing, that criminalise illegal immigrants and favour social exclusion. In short, it is seen as reproducing the polarisation of positions on immigration policy that emerged during the earlier debate on the Law on Foreign Persons (ES9911262F), before the new law has had time for its impact to be assessed.

The government approved the draft reform with hardly any previous consultation with the political and social groups that are opposed to it and without requesting a report by the General Council of Judicial Power (Consejo General del Poder Judicial). Criticism of this procedure (the report of the Council is mandatory though not binding) and doubts that have been expressed in several quarters as to the constitutionality of some of the provisions of the new legal text have forced the government to take a step backwards. It has requested a report by the Council and will have to approve the new text again before it is sent to the Congress of Deputies to start its parliamentary procedure in September 2000.

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