Human Rights

Spain, Here We Come

Latin Americans faced with extreme crises at home and closing doors in the United States are helping to fuel a new wave of immigration to Spain.
Magdalena Loor, a divorced woman with three children, planned to leave her native Ecuador in 1999, looking for a way out of the worst economic crisis in the country's history.

She thought about going to the United States, a place she dreamed about and where her movie star idol Arnold Schwarzenegger, also an immigrant, had made it big.

"My ideal was to go to California, for the beautiful landscape, what I've seen on television," Loor says. "But I knew it was a hard thing to accomplish."

Legal entry into the United States was next to impossible. Ecuador was undergoing the fastest economic decline in the history of Latin America, and the American Embassy would not give Ecuadorians a visitor's visa, knowing they would want to stay.

Others were entering illegally, but it was risky. Ecuadorian newspapers had reported that thousands of their countrymen were being returned, and some had been found dead in the Arizona desert after moving thru Central America and Mexico.

But Magdalena had a friend who now lived in a place she never thought she would visit: Spain.

"She told me I could count on her," Magdalena says during an interview in Madrid, where she now resides. "She sent me the ticket and the money they asked me to show at the airport to enter the country as a visitor. They didn't ask for a visa; it was very easy."

Magdalena was not alone. During the crisis in Ecuador, a small South American country with a population of 12 million, at least 1.5 million Ecuadorians emigrated, looking elsewhere for work and a better life.

An estimated 1 million Ecuadorians now live in the United States, most of them in New York. But others saw Spain, Italy and other European countries as a better opportunity. Traveling there was easier and cheaper, and at the time a visa was not required.

"Back in those years, the flights to Spain from Ecuador were coming in full," says Vladimir Paspuel, president of the Rumiñahi Hispanic American Association, a Madrid-based organization of Ecuadorians living abroad. Flights from Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia were also crowded. "They would only ask that you show a couple of thousand dollars at the airport to show you were a visitor," Paspuel says.

According to Paspuel, professionals were the first to leave Ecuador. The working poor followed. "We Ecuadorians have become the largest community of immigrants in Spain," says Paspuel, himself once a university professor in Quito who left in 2000.

Since becoming part of the European Union in 1986, Spain's economy has grown to become one of the most prosperous in Europe. At first, Spain received many immigrants from Africa and the former Eastern European countries, who filled the hardest and lowest-paying jobs in agriculture, construction and industry.

Slowly at first, and very rapidly in the late 1990s, Latin American workers joined the flow of immigrants going to Spain for economic reasons, similar to the way 3.5 million Spanish refugees had gone to Latin America in the late 1930s and early '40s, fleeing war, repression and hunger.

Today, Ecuadorians are the largest immigrant group in Spain, outnumbering Moroccans, who continuously risk their lives crossing the Strait of Gibraltar aboard flimsy boats.

According to the Spanish Ministry for Immigration, the number of Ecuadorians in the country has gone from 2,000 in 1995, to 84,000 in 2001 and 375,000 in 2003. The real number could be 500,000 or higher, since many are undocumented.

Colombians living in Spain have also grown exponentially, from a little over 7,000 in 1993 to more than 80,000 in 2002 and 244,000 in 2003. It is estimated that over 300,000 Argentines entered Spain around 2001, after that country's economic collapse.

According to a study by the Interamerican Development Bank, in early 2003 Latin Americans in Spain were sending about 706 million euros (about $900 million) annually back to their home countries.

"Like the United States, Europe requires cheap labor from other countries," says Adela Ros, secretary for immigration for the region of Catalunya, Spain. "Our labor markets rely a great deal on that labor. Many do not want to recognize that fact."

Spain's birth rate is the lowest in Europe. According to the United Nations Population Division, Spain needs 12 million immigrants from now until 2050 just to maintain labor force levels.

"Many women work as domestics, which helps Spanish women to move in the labor market," Paspuel says. "Men work in construction, industry, commerce, hotels in the main cities, like Madrid and Barcelona, and in agriculture in Murcia and Valencia. The immigrants are doing the jobs that Spanish people won't do now that they have moved up the economic scale."

In the last couple of years, the massive influx of immigrants and the
pressure applied by the European Union for member countries to regulate it has resulted in policy changes, including new visa requirements for immigrants from Ecuador and Colombia and some other Latin American countries.

But the strengthening of immigration laws in the United States starting in 1996 has helped keep Spain an attractive option for many Latin Americans.

"The United States will always need a certain level of immigration and will continue to receive legal and undocumented workers," says Jessica Retis, a Peruvian who has lived Madrid since the mid-1990s and is pursuing a doctorate in Contemporary Latin America studies. "But what's happened here is like an echo. People think, 'The door is closing in the U.S., let's go to Europe.'"

Pilar Marrero is the political columnist and metropolitan editor for La Opinion Newspaper in Los Angeles, where a version of this article first appeared. Research was made possible due to a 2004 World Affairs Journalism Fellowship.
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