Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Guest Post by KMacGinn

Illegal Immigration -> Legalization => More Illegal Immigration??

At the start of this summer, I took a ten-day tour of Spain. It was a great trip, giving me a chance to chow down on lots of delicious Spanish cuisine and sip lots of wine. I also had my first experience with a pickpocket. I was not the victim of the pickpocket, but I watched the attempt "go down." A young eastern European gypsy stuck his hand into the pocket of a member of our tour group. It happened right in front of my face as the two men walked side-by-side up some steps. I reacted instantly with anger, grabbing the young man by his backpack and yelling the first words in Spanish that came to mind: "Thief! He's robbing him! He stuck his hand in this man's pocket!" I was surprised at the fury that surged through my body. I was ready to plant this guy face down into the pavement.

I was met with an odd reply by our tour guide as well as two other guides that came running: "Oh, no! Don't touch him! He has protected status." They were concerned that our group was going to restrain and/or hurt the thief. "Protected status?!?," I thought. "What the hell does that mean?!?" The tour guides said the thief was the same guy that stole over $1,000 in cash from one of the guide's groups the week before. (Of course, I wondered what idiot would carry that much cash on himself. But, still -- right is right and wrong is wrong.)

As the pickpocket slowly sauntered off, holding up his hands and acting all innocent, our tour guides said that gypsies from eastern Europe had protected status and that we could possibly get in trouble with police if we did anything. I wanted to reply: "Yeah, he might have protected status from the police, but not from an angry American."

The whole incident made me curious about Spain's problem with gypsies. It turns out, however, that Spain has a problem with not just gypsies, but immigrants in general flocking to southern Europe. I was amused to learn that Europe has an illegal immigration "problem" similar to the United States'. After returning home, I did some searching on the Internet about this.

I came across an interesting article in The New York Times dated June 10th, 2008: "Spain, Like U.S., Grapples With Immigration." It seems that southern Europe -- Spain and Italy -- has been a back door for illegal immigrants entering Europe, much to the annoyance of northern Europe. It seems that immigration has abounded, perhaps due to generous "forgiveness plans" of different countries.

In the last two decades, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have run at least 15 legalization programs, including a Spanish effort three years ago that was among the Continent's largest. With little domestic opposition, Spain legalized nearly 600,000 of the African, Latin American and eastern European workers who helped power its economy and brought this once insular land the strengths and strains of diversity.

Immigrants say their prized work cards have brought higher wages, peace of mind and reunions of separated families. But critics say legalizations have attracted more illegal migrants — with spillover risks to nearby countries — and warn that an economic slowdown now puts Spain and its foreigners at odds.

Europe has held at least 20 legalizations in the past 25 years, giving residency papers to about four million people. Italy and Spain account for about two-thirds of the total, to the consternation of northern Europeans who see the south as the Continent's weak back door. With free movement across much of Europe, legalized immigrants can easily head north, alarming those worried about job competition, welfare costs, cultural clashes or terrorist threats.

Southern Europe's tolerance for illegal immigration has several explanations. Its aging populations and booming economies created a need for foreign workers. Its proximity to northern Africa and eastern Europe places it close to countries that supply them. And its economies have traditionally depended more on off-the-books workers.

No country has run more legalization programs than Spain, which has carried out six since 1985. As recently as a decade ago, immigrants made up less than 2 percent of the population. Now they are more than 10 percent. About 40 percent come from eastern and northern Europe; 38 percent come from Latin America; and 20 percent from Africa.

Despite the rapid change, until recently there was little political conflict, with legalizations occurring under both conservative and socialist governments. Spain even offers immigrants free health insurance, whether they are legal or not.

"The attitude toward unauthorized migrants is much more relaxed than in the United States," said Joaquín Arango, a sociologist at Complutense University in Madrid.

The acceptance has been attributed to newfound prosperity, the need for workers, the progressive culture of post-Franco Spain and the shared language with Latin Americans, which spares Spain a major source of tension in the United States.

However, now that Europe, and Spain in particular, has been facing some economic difficulties, the view of immigration is changing. The unemployment rate among foreigners is now 14.7 percent, compared with 8.7 percent among Spaniards. Nearly 40 percent of the recent jump in unemployment has occurred among the foreign-born.

"People are starting to say: 'We don't need immigrants. They should return to their country,' " said Sebastián Salinas, a lawyer with the immigrant rights group Acobe.

Immigration emerged as an election issue in Spain this year for the first time. Mariano Rajoy, a conservative challenger to Prime Minister José Luiz Rodríguez Zapatero, said the 2005 legalization had attracted more illegal immigrants and increased social tensions. "We are heading toward a situation of enormous problems," said Mr. Rajoy, who narrowly lost.

Likewise, with Italy's economy faltering, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently promised a new crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Spain has started cracking down on another recent increase in illegal immigration, although it maintains it is strictly doing so for social rather than economic reasons. The government fears that "exclusion" will breed terrorism, although it does note that illegal immigrants undercut union laborers and tax revenue and, thereby, the economy.

French, German and Dutch officials criticized the Spanish move, fearing an increase in illegal immigration that would cross their borders. Some domestic critics said the program also attracted illegal workers dwelling elsewhere in Europe.

Lorenzo Cachón, a sociologist at Complutense University, said migrants were mainly lured by jobs. But the region's history of repeated legalizations, he added, may add to the pull. "It produces in the imagination of the immigrant the possibility that there might be a regularization," he said.
Americans should consider the effects of similar "forgiveness" plans. Do "regularization plans" encourage more illegal immigration? The United States' last amnesty program in 1987 legalized 2.7 million. Currently, there are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Did that legalization some 20 years ago lead to our current problem? Looking at how Europe has had numerous amnesty plans with continuing illegal immigration, I fear amnesty would produce the same ongoing problems here.

(You can read KMacGinn Daily at Hummers & Cigarettes)

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