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Immigrants Flood Prosperous Spain

August 22, 2001

CUENCA, Spain (AP) _ Maria Perez-Minguez thought of Spain’s past as she gave a crate of plums to Moroccan and Algerian vegetable-pickers who had just ended a five-day hunger strike against their threatened expulsion from the country.

These days illegal immigrants are swamping Spain’s shores like never before, crossing perilous waters in rickety boats despite a tough new immigration law that has triggered police crackdowns and an outburst of anti-immigrant sentiment.

It’s a sharp turnaround for Spain, once among Europe’s poorest countries whose people migrated to its richer neighbors in search of work.

Perez-Minguez recalled that in the late 1950s, her mother-in-law was forced to go to Paris to find work as a maid.

``After all, 2 million of us once went abroad to work in places like Germany and France,″ she said.

But a quarter century of economic growth has changed all that. Since joining the European Union in the late 1980s, this country of 40 million has blossomed into the world’s 14th largest economy and sharply narrowed the income gap with its European neighbors.

Its economic success and geographical closeness to Africa have made it a prime destination for poor immigrants.

Absorption shelters were filled to capacity after a record 800 people were detained last weekend along Spain’s southern coast.

The government on Tuesday summoned Morocco’s ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to express its concern that most of the illegal immigrants arrived from his country.

According to unions, migrant workers from Africa and Latin America work up to 14 hours a day for as little as $1.50, sleeping under plastic sheeting as they follow harvests of strawberries, garlic and tomatoes across the country.

The illegals also work in the cities in construction, domestic work and prostitution, part of an underground economy that amounts to $110 billion, or one-fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, according to European Union figures.

``This is an invasion,″ said Alvaro Penas of Democracia Nacional, a small but growing far-right party. ``It’s out of control.″

Democracia Nacional grabbed the national spotlight with a protest in the village of Las Pedroneras _ population 5,000 _ after more than 2,000 undocumented migrant workers had converged on the village to vie for 700 contract jobs picking garlic.

Faced with deportation under the new law if they could not get work contracts, scores of illegals from Las Pedroneras staged their own 60-mile protest march to Cuenca, the provincial capital and popular tourist destination.

Now the immigrants sleep on cardboard boxes on the square, refusing to budge until they get working papers.

That’s where Maria Perez-Minguez presented her gift of plums. ``The least we can do is receive them in a humane way, not by pouring racism on them,″ she said.

The immigrants were protesting their possible expulsion under the Aliens Act, enacted Aug. 1, which allows summary deportation of anyone caught without working papers while also promulgating the kind of amnesty that President Bush is considering for U.S.-based Mexicans.

Around a quarter million undocumented workers have asked for amnesty since applications were first accepted in January. According to Interior Ministry figures, around 200,000 have been given work permits.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative government hoped the law would balance Spain’s need for cheap labor against pressure from other European Union governments, who fear the country is becoming a continental gateway for illegal immigration.

But it has also backfired in Barcelona, where police roundups have sent illegal immigrants scurrying from one city park to another, because the city had no processing center as required under the legislation.

``They seem to have thought that with the enactment of the law, the immigrants would up and march to the border all by themselves,″ said Miguel Angel Saiz, a labor union official.

Saiz alleged that the new law is being applied selectively, with authorities turning a blind eye to the oversupply of illegal labor to drive down costs for employers.

``We don’t want the California model,″ said Saiz. ``There the message is sent that we don’t want ‘wetbacks’ _ as they call them _ while the government’s permissiveness allows four or five times as many to pass as are necessary.″

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On the Net:

International Organization for Migration: http://www.iom.int

European Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations: http://www.ercomer.org

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