These Open Arms Are Raising EU Eyebrows

Like thousands of Ecuadorians, Olga Cando was quick to find a job after she arrived in Madrid four years ago. Her two brothers worked at a Spanish construction company and knew a friendly family who needed a live-in maid. But it wasn't until this year that the 37-year-old Cando had any hope of legalizing her situation. During a three-month period ending May 7, Cando along with almost 700,000 of Spain's illegal immigrants, applied for national working papers as part of one of the most ambitious-ever amnesties in Europe. "I'm so relieved my papers are on their way," says Cando, who with help from her employers had applied twice before and been rejected both times. She hopes to visit her parents in Ecuador for the first time in four years.

Indeed, for Cando, the amnesty has opened the door to a new life. For an aging Spain, the move holds out the promise of enormous economic benefits from a young, low-cost workforce. But for Spain's biggest opposition party and many European Union nations the move to legalize so many unskilled workers poses a great threat. They fear it will encourage millions more of the world's poor to try for a better life in Europe.

The massive inflow of immigrants already has changed Spain. Over the past seven years the country's fast-growing economy has attracted 3 million newcomers, mainly from Latin America, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. The total number of immigrants today approaches 4 million, or 9% of the Spanish population, compared with less than 1.6% in 1998.

The inflow has helped rejuvenate a country with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Poor foreigners have been willing to tackle low-skilled jobs in construction, domestic services, agriculture, and restaurants that Spaniards no longer want. Unlike the locals, who are reluctant to relocate in search of work, immigrants move to wherever there are jobs. "A large part of the Spanish miracle is due to immigration," says Manuel Balmaseda, an economist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.

But the wave of immigrants has also caught Spain off guard. Despite five amnesties since 1985, the country had about 1.5 million illegal workers by the time the government began its latest legalization process. This time around, the government linked residency papers to proof of employment. Only immigrants who could prove they had arrived in the country before August 8, 2004 were eligible to apply. Once they receive their papers, immigrants, even maids like Cando, will be required to pay Social Security. That's a crucial step, the government says, towards eliminating Spain's flourishing underground economy.

Even so, just about everyone worries that the amnesty will encourage more immigration to Europe. "This regularization goes completely against other EU members' immigration policy," says Ana Pastor, the executive secretary of social policy for Spain's center-right Popular Party. The Spanish government argues Spanish working papers aren't valid elsewhere in Europe. And it pledges to crack down on employers who hire illegal workers and to tighten police control along its borders.

It won't be easy. "The moment somebody from the Ivory Coast touches shore on the Canary Islands, his life expectancy rises from 40 to 75 years," says Luis de Sebastián, an economist at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. Until the developed world offers other solutions to these countries, he says, "the inflow of immigration will be unstoppable."

By Carlta Vitzthum in Madrid

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