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Changes in Immigration Policy in Spain

The migration policy of the destination country helps to shape migration. Emigration to Spain and rapid economic development there went hand in hand.

In the three decades after World War II, Spain experienced outmigration. Spanish people went north to more developed European countries. However, after the mid-1980s and into the first half of 2008, before the global financial crisis in 2008, Spain entered a period of rapid economic development (see Fig. 13.1). The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 initiated a large number of public construction projects in the 1980s. New immigrants were attracted by this opportunity. Although the economy was disrupted almost immediately after the Olympics, it soon started to grow again. Spanish gross domestic product (GDP) grew quickly for most of the subsequent decade.

Economic growth rate in Spain and in the EU (1980-2014) (Source

Fig. 13.1 Economic growth rate in Spain and in the EU (1980-2014) (Source: GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG)

Along with rapid economic development, particularly at the turn of the century, the Spanish government implemented a rather liberal immigration policy in order to attract Spanish returnees and cheap foreign labor to work on its construction projects. The policy was effective. According to statistics published in June 2015, in the period between 1998 and 2008, Spain received 4,933,231 new immigrants, 2,823,048 (57.2 %) of which came from other European Union (EU) states and the rest from outside the EU. Many of the non-EU foreigners (up to 34 %) were from Morocco. Chinese immigrants were the second biggest group (around 9 %) (Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social 2015: 10).

The Chinese, particularly the Zhejiangese, emigrated in different ways. In the beginning they did so by way of family reunion, for most West European countries allow this. For Chinese, “family” (jia) is a concept that embraces brothers and sisters, married or unmarried, and their children. Moreover, even sharing the same family name is sufficient evidence for descent from a common ancestor and membership of one great family. It is not unusual for a migrant to adopt a son or a daughter from another family who is already abroad, and then to arrange their emigration via the “family reunion” procedure (Li 1998). Zhejiang people, particularly Qingtian and Wenzhou people, grasped the opportunity and became the first group to emigrate from mainland China to Spain. When this new generation of pioneers had settled down, a new migration chain started up.

However, the family link is still limited. Those who could not find a family link emigrated where possible by a number of ways. Some entered Spain on a tourist or business visa but remained after its expiry. Others were smuggled into Europe. As the number of undocumented Chinese migrants rose, amnesties for illegal immigrants launched in some European countries offered hope. France launched its first amnesty in 1981, when 132,000 immigrants legalized their status (Li 2002: 493).

While news of the French amnesty was spreading across the qiaoxiang areas of Zhejiang, Spain followed suit in 1985. Undocumented Chinese in Spain and neighboring countries rushed to take advantage of the opportunity. A total of 1192 Chinese applied and 845 were legalized, accounting for 2.2 % of the total number of legalized foreigners. In June 1991 a second amnesty followed in Spain. A total of 4291 Chinese legalized their status, representing 4 % of the total.

In 2000 the Spanish government announced a new Aliens Act (Ley de Extranjena). Any foreigner who had lived in Spain for more than three years and held a contract of more than a year could obtain a residential and working permit. This act, in effect a third amnesty, started in March and ended on July 31, 2000. Nearly 5000 Chinese legalized their status, representing 5.8 % of the total.4 Undocumented Chinese had to buy a work contract from a settled Chinese with a business in Spain. A one-year work contract cost USD10,000 in around 2000 and EUR16,000 at the beginning of 2008.

From 1985 up until 2010, Spain carried out seven legalization programs. As a result, it quickly became a main destination for Chinese migrants, particularly those unable to emigrate via official channels but who had local contacts able to provide the necessary information and documents. In this way, more and more Chinese joined the official migrant community and started up new migration chains. Meanwhile, more irregular migrants awaited the next amnesty.

According to a report published in 2015, nearly 5 million foreign migrants had received permits to live in Spain, including 189,853 Chinese, or 193,690 Chinese if those with another EU citizenship are included (Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social 2015: 1).

The Chinese have migrated to Spain in different ways. It is difficult, however, to define what is and what isn’t a normal approach. For example, having a legal immigration permit may require forged documents. Someone who overstays their tourist visa, or is trafficked, may have the legal right to join their family in Spain but be unaware of it or be unwilling or unable to carry out the complicated and time-consuming process of application. In the eyes of potential Chinese migrants in the qiaoxiang areas, “being channeled to another country” is not a crime but a worthwhile undertaking by people who want to make a fortune abroad but lack the legal entitlement to try. The most attractive point of going abroad—regardless of its legality—is that no matter how tough the experience, the reward will prove worthwhile. As long as the migrant returns one day as a successful overseas Chinese, all the processes along the way, no matter how frustrating or demeaning, and no matter whether legal or illegal, are as if erased.

In 2010 a Chinese association in Spain reviewed the ways in which Chinese immigrants reached Spain. From the 1980s to the early 1990s, about 40 % entered on tourist visas and overstayed; about 40 % were smuggled in via a third or fourth country; and the other 20 % gained access by way of family reunion or study. In the 1990s about 40 % entered through family reunion and work contracts, based on people who had legalized their status in the first two legalization programs; about 40 % were smuggled in to await new amnesties; and the remaining 20 % entered on business or student visas. Starting in 2000, about 35 % entered Spain on work contracts, most of them Zhejiangese; 40 % relied on tourist or business visas and then stayed in the expectation of a new amnesty; about 8 % used student visas; and the remaining 12 % gained entry via another European country or via South America.5

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