Vicente, T. L.: Latin American Immigration to Spain, 2010

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Evolution and Legal Status of Latin American Immigrants in Spain (1999-2009)

The arrival of immigrant population to Spain has acquired an unusual importance during the last fifteen years and especially in the last decade. Today, Spain is Europe's leading country of immigration. Thus, in accordance with the provisional data of the Spanish National Statistics Institute, at the beginning of the year 2009 the foreign born population living in the country had already reached 6,418,100 (representing 13.8% of total population), whereas in 1999 its volume did not even reach one million three thousand (in fact, the figure was 1,259,054, and only made up 3.1% of Spain’s total population). In short, the increase of the country’s foreign-born population over the last decade has been around 410%.

At the beginning of 2009, a total of 2,365,364 people of Latin American origin lived in Spain, showing the same clear rising trend as for the foreign population in the country as a whole. Throughout the last decade, the foreign-born population has had a sevenfold increase, from 303,518 to 2,365,364 persons. But the arrivals of Latin American people have not only undergone growth in absolute terms, but also in relative terms, from making up 24% of the foreign born population in the country in 1999 to 37% of this group ten years later. This has come about in spite of the increasing diversification in the immigrants’ origins. This phenomenon, together with the constant increase in each of these areas in absolute terms, has characterised the migratory flows towards Spain.

Ten years ago, immigrants from South and Central American countries occupied the third position in the ranking of foreign-born population residing in Spain by continent of origin, surpassed by the people of European origin and the people coming from the African continent. In 2001, however, the African population was relegated to third position in this ranking by the greater increase of arrivals of Latin Americans. The population from Latin America held the first place from 2002 to 2005, after which it was relegated to second place. It still remains there today because of the greater increase of European immigration towards Spain, especially coming from the countries that most recently joined the European Union. Rumanians for example, have most recently become the largest foreign nationality present in Spanish society.

The explanation for the most recent and notable growth in the volume of population of Latin American origin in Spanish territory is, with complete certainty, very complex. It is necessary to consider both the aspect regarding the reality of the countries of origin and that of the country of destination. Due to the length of this paper, it is not my intention to approach the different causes that explain emigration from the increasing plurality of Latin American societies. However, given the central subject of this presentation, namely the Latin American immigration to Spain, it seems opportune to emphasize some reasons that help to explain the present migratory tendency. We can emphasize the socio-political change that Spain has been experiencing in the last three decades, the accelerated growth of the Spanish economy mainly since the mid-nineties, the development of the country’s migration policy (with continuous processes of regularization and the signing of bilateral agreements to regulate the migratory flows), and the better acceptance that the Spanish population has shown in surveys regarding the population coming from Latin America (given the historical bonds and the greater cultural, linguistic and religious similarities) as contrast to other immigrant groups such as Arabs, who are granted less integration capabilities. To these reasons we can also add the increasing importance of family reunification, a process that follows the arrival of the pioneering migrant (be this person a man or a woman) and aims at a permanent residency.

In relation to the legal status of the Latin-American born population living in Spain, there were 1,333,886 persons (56% of this group) at the beginning of 2009 who had a valid mandatory residence card or permit; another 543,591 men and women held Spanish nationality (23%), and there were 487,887 persons (21%) in an irregular situation. This irregular situation implies an existence in Spain without the necessary documentation to work and/or live legally in this country and with practically no legal channels to regularise their situation in the Spanish State, with the consequent limitation of rights and the risk of social exclusion. Besides, there were 46,708 persons who were born in Spain and yet only held the nationality of a Latin American country, despite never having moved nor changed their country of residence.

Throughout the last decade residence permits granted to people of Latin American origin have grown at a remarkable rate, as the following data reflects: at the beginning of 1999 this population possessed 130,203 residence permits, whereas ten years later, at the end 2009, the number of 1,333,886 had already been reached. In addition, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of naturalisations among this group living in Spain: in 1999, there were 169,531 people who, though born in Latin America, held Spanish nationality, and in January 2009 there were already 543,591. These figures show an increasing trend that may become very important in the near future. At this point it is important to point out that for the acquisition of citizenship by residence in the Spanish State it is necessary to have been legally living in the country for a period of at least ten years. There are, however, several exceptions to this rule, as in the case of the population of Latin-American origin, who can obtain citizenship after legal residency in Spain for a period of just two years. Moreover, thanks to dual nationality agreements, Latin Americans do not have to give up their nationality of origin on becoming a naturalized Spanish citizen. These reasons explain why 48% of the foreign-born population who are naturalised Spanish are of Latin American origin.

On the other hand, it is also important to consider the development of irregular Latin American immigrants which shows some remarkable characteristics: in the last ten years, the number of people from Latin America living in Spain in irregular situations has multiplied by two (from 234,173 to 487,887 persons), in spite of the remarkable increase throughout this period in the number of permits granting the legal right to residence, which has been previously outlined. But the volume of Latin American irregular immigrants was especially important in the first half of the last decade because it was during that period that the greatest increase in Latin Americans settling in Spain came about. Thus, this group of undocumented immigrants came to represent 45% of the population of Latin American origin living in Spain just before the last stabilisation process in 2005, despite the other two regularisation processes carried out in 2000 and 2001. The presence of undocumented persons in Spain points to the remarkable growth in their arrivals, but it emphasizes, likewise, the significant and increasing difficulties that the immigrants find to enter this country or to maintain their legal status in it. That is why frequently, after entering regularly or after obtaining temporary residence permission, their situation becomes irregular again.

Some of the obstacles that Latin American immigrants have had to face since the beginning of the century will be mentioned. Starting in 2001, the contingent or quota system was modified so that, as of that date, access to this quota would only be open to foreigners who were selected in their country of origin and who, therefore, were not in Spain at the time of their recruitment. Thus, the annual contingents or quotas, which until then had served as a regularisation route for undocumented foreigners resident in Spain, became considered more as an entrance route for those who were waiting in their countries of origin to obtain a permit before initiating the migratory project. Nevertheless, in the same year, 2001, an agreement was signed between Spain and three Latin American countries (Ecuador, Colombia and the Dominican Republic) regarding the regulation of migratory flows, aiming to give priority to the hiring of people from these countries through these quotas or contingents.

However, the nationals of these three Latin American countries, besides others, for the first time now, unlike before, needed a visa. This is a requirement that has made it more difficult for such people to enter Spain as tourists in order to later attempt family regrouping through visa exemption procedure, or to search for irregular work while waiting for a route towards stabilisation.

This increasing number of difficulties in entry conditions to Spain, together with the economic recession experienced in the country due to the international economic crisis meant that in the second half of this decade, the Latin American population settled in Spain is still growing but in a more decelerated way. This has a remarkable impact in the prompting reduction in the proportion of irregularity among these people, especially on the national groups that have been established for a longer period in Spain.

Development of Latin American Immigration by Country of Origin

In Spain not only the volume of the inflows and stocks of the Latin American population varied, but it has also changed the composition of its national profiles. As a result of the flight of the middle and professional classes from the prevalent socio-political conditions in their native lands, the predominant nationalities living in Spain at the beginning of the nineties were the Argentinean, the Venezuelan and the Chilean. But these national groups were to experience a decrease in numbers at the end of the nineties as a consequence of their return after the political change in their countries of origin. The immigration from Argentina, however, was to register a new increase with the beginning of the millennium, when the existing economic crisis in the country worsened.

From the mid-nineties until the end of the century, immigrants from Peru and the Dominican Republic were those that grew with greater impetus, reaching and surpassing the Argentinean population in 1997. They arrived at the top in the ranking of Latin American people settled in Spain by country of origin, and their growth has been constant since then, although their relative weight was to decrease from 2000 onwards due to the spectacular increase showed by other two nationalities with a lower presence till then – Ecuadorians and Colombians. The Ecuadorian immigrants started coming to Spain mainly as a consequence of the economic and social crisis that accompanied the US dollar being adopted as the official currency in Ecuador, while Colombians arrived as a result of the violent internal strife situation their country was suffering, due to the guerrilla and military presence, drug trade, and so on. Spanish migration policy also contributed to these immigration flows, with measures such as the establishment of bilateral agreements as mentioned above. Nevertheless, this is a dynamic reality, as is shown not only by the sudden recent rise in the immigration from Argentina, but also by the significant irruption of immigration from Bolivia since 2003.

In this context, in 2009, the Ecuadorians made up the third largest foreign-born population in Spain (behind Romanians and Moroccans) and with 471,425 people, they constitute the leading number of people of Latin American origin settled here. Colombians (354,869) and Argentineans (293,227), follow, holding fifth and sixth place respectively. People from Bolivia (226,033) and Peru (186,060) occupy the ninth and tenth places in this ranking respectively.  At a greater distance, native populations from Brazil (152,239), Venezuela (151,008), and the Dominican Republic (128,382) can be found.

With regard to breakdown by sex, it is remarkable that the population of Latin American origin living in Spain has shown a predominance of women from the beginning of the decade. At present such female immigrants comprise a slightly higher percentage than men (54 and 46% respectively) regardless of their legal status: there are more women than men in irregular situations, holding resident permits, or who are already naturalized as Spaniards.

Major differences between the sexes are observable, however, among the different nationalities.  We can point out that there are more Argentinean men (52%) than women (48%); the Ecuadorian population shows a continuous tendency to balance (49% men and 51% women), and the presence of women is higher than that of men among the people from Peru (52%), Venezuela (53%), Bolivia (57%), Brazil (59%) and the Dominican Republic (62%).

Finally, these diverse nationalities of origin also point out relevant differences in the legal status of their members. The older inflows and stocks display higher levels of naturalization in Spain and lower levels of irregular immigration. This is the case, for example, of those from the Dominican Republic or Peru, both with one of the lowest groups of migrants without the required documents to stay in Spain (4%) and with an important group of people who have already obtained Spanish citizenship (33% of the Dominicans, and 25% of the Peruvians). On the other hand, Bolivians, who constitute one of the most recent inflows of foreign population into the Spanish society, register a very high level of population in an irregular situation (59%). These numbers, together with the very small number of naturalizations obtained by Bolivians (3%), reflect the greater tradition of some Latin American migration flows towards Spain, as well as the more recent character that others display, by following a migration pattern unknown in the Spanish panorama until very recent dates.

Trinidad L. Vicente, University of Deusto, Bilbao, 2010