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Spain Gives Illegal Immigrants Chance to Apply for Residency

By Renwick Mclean

The New York Times -- MADRID, Spain

The Spanish government began offering hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the chance to apply for residency papers on Monday, enacting an executive order that has drawn criticism from conservative politicians who say the move may entice more people to come to Spain illegally.

The measure allows illegal immigrants already living in Spain to obtain residency papers if they have a contract to work for at least six months with a company authorized to do business here. The immigrants must also prove that they do not have a criminal record.

In deciding to enact the measure in December, the Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodiguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party, described it as a way to meet a critical demand for labor in industries like construction and agriculture. It will also help to bring government spending and revenues into balance, because many illegal immigrants use public hospitals, schools and other services but do not pay taxes, the government says.

“This is also about respecting the human dignity of these immigrants, who are working but without the rights that other workers are guaranteed,” said Javier Valenzuela, a spokesman for Zapatero.

Illegal immigrants have been flooding into Spain in recent years, drawn by the job opportunities from its growing economy. In 2001, Spain had an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants. Today, the number is estimated to be 1 million.

The main opposition group in parliament, the Popular Party, has denounced the government’s action, saying that it will persuade more illegal immigrants to come to Spain with the expectation that further amnesties are possible.

“When this process of massive legalization finishes, there will be more illegal immigrants in Spain than before,” Angel Acebes, the Popular Party’s secretary-general, told reporters on Monday. “The effect is going to be exactly the opposite of what the government wanted to achieve.”

Foreign governments have been critical, too. In late January, Holland and Germany complained that Spain did not consult them before going ahead with the amnesty program, saying they were worried that immigrants may spill from Spain into other countries in the European Union. With borders between EU countries receding, they said, member governments should try to coordinate their immigration policies.

The Spanish government says it agrees on the general need for greater coordination, but contends that this specific policy should not have significant effects outside its borders. Immigrants with contracts to work in Spain, government officials argue, will have little incentive to leave for another country where the possibilities of finding work are less certain.