Spain will pay unemployed migrant workers to leave

The incentive program marks a shift in Spain's lenient immigration policies.

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Just a year ago, the Spanish government was contracting workers in countries like Ecuador and Morocco to fill jobs in its booming economy. Now it has adopted a new measure designed to entice those same immigrants to go home. As Spain suffers from the world economic crisis, it is losing more and more jobs, and the new proposal seeks to offer unemployment compensation to out-of-work migrants who leave.

The plan, which will go into effect in July, offers documented migrants who have lost their jobs two lump sums – one before they leave Spain, the other once they have returned home. Immigrants must hand over their residence visas and work permits and agree not to return to Spain for at least three years. The incentive, Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho, author of the plan, told El País newspaper, is "an opportunity for development and the generation of wealth" in immigrants' home countries.

The incentive program signals a shift in Spain's famously lenient immigration policy. In 2005, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist government sparked the ire of other European countries when it gave work and residence visas to 800,000 immigrants. Now the government has not only supported the European Union's Return Directive for undocumented workers but has taken a more skeptical approach to legal migrants who fill construction and domestic jobs. The Labor Ministry is studying a plan to restrict family immigration to parents and their children under 18. Currently the law allows grandparents and in-laws to join their families.

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Immigrants' groups oppose the government's new approach. "It's not a positive solution," says Antonio Alfonso Sánchez, president of Red Acoge, a national federation of migrant support organizations. "The government is trying to reactivate the labor market. But these are people who have been working up until now. They should be treated the same as Spaniards. No one is telling a worker in Madrid from Zaragoza that he has to go back to Zaragoza just because he's out of work."

Raúl Jiménez, spokesman for Rumiñahui, a Madrid-based organization for Ecuadorean immigrants, is critical of the new measure. "This offer has converted immigrants into the protagonists of the economic slowdown," he says. "But it's [immigrant] labor that has supported the economy all along." He worries about how people who take the offer will survive if they return to countries where conditions are difficult.

As of April 2008, there were 165,217 legal immigrants receiving unemployment. The Labor Ministry estimates that the plan, combined with family reunification changes, will affect "more than a million" of Spain's 2.2 million documented immigrants.

Not everyone is dismayed. Ramiro Riera, a bread deliveryman from Ecuador, has lived in Spain with his family for seven years, but he considers his work unstable and welcomes the government's recent proposal. "It seems good to us," he says. "I came here to earn money for my family, not to live forever in Spain, so if I lose my job and they pay me my unemployment checks in a couple of lump sums, that would give us a chance to start something of our own back in Ecuador. We'd definitely take it. In fact, we're thinking we'll probably go on unemployment and take the deal in the next year."

Filipina Nati Vidad, who works as a cashier in a Madrid bar and has lived in Spain for 12 years, is more skeptical. "I can understand why recent immigrants might be interested in this, because if they've moved from job to job, they don't have a deep trust with their employers, and with so many immigrants coming to Spain now, there aren't enough jobs," she says. "But really, the government is just trying to pay a little money to make people like us go away."

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