- Title: SPAIN: Migrants voted on but not allowed to vote in Spanish elections.
- Date: 6th March 2008
- Summary: HAIRDRESSER'S BANNER READING: "LATIN PLACE" IMMIGRANTS WALKING DOWN THE STREET
- Embargoed: 21st March 2008 12:00
- Location: Spain
- Country: Spain
- Reuters ID: LVAD8TWBSJH91TAH0V5UGLPV92L0
- Story Text: Immigration becomes one of Spain's general election biggest issues with the conservative Popular calling it a "problem" and proposing measures to compel immigrants to integrate and restrictions on the use of Islamic headscarves. The Socialist party candidate seeking re-election dismisses the proposals as unnecessary and xenophobic. Immigrants with and without a say in national elections on March 9 react to the controversy.
Immigration continues taking central stage in the Spanish electoral campaign only few days before a general election.
Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy has sought to make immigration a major issue for the first time in a Spanish election, calling for restrictions not only on the Islamic veil but also proposing a visa system that would make it more difficult for Muslims to come to Spain.
Entering Madrid's main Mosque for Friday prayers with her family, Naima said she would not welcome such restrictions and would never remove her scarf.
"To me the headscarf means everything. I would not feel a Muslim without it as I would be removing a symbol of Islam, the veil. People have more respect for women who wear it, I would not like to rouse people to fury by taking it off," said the Moroccan young mother of one.
Many Spaniards, particularly Catholic conservatives, are concerned about Muslim assertiveness, especially now that immigration has given the country a significant Muslim population -- about one million -- for the first time in 400 years.
The conservative opposition leader said immigrants should sign a 'contract of integration', obliging them to learn Spanish and abide by Spanish customs.
"Through the proposed 'contract of integration' the immigrant would sign a compromise to learn Spanish, to abide by Spanish law and customs, and to pay taxes like everybody else," PP leader Mariano Rajoy told a cheering crowd of supporters during a rally.
The PP hopes a tough stance on immigration will be a vote-winner with working-class Spaniards worried about job security at the end of a decade-long economic boom.
Spanish PM and Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Rajoy was being alarmist and stirring up trouble with his campaign issues and dismissed his proposals as xenophobic. Yet, Spain's premier is wary of appearing a lenient gatekeeper for economic migrants seeking entry to Spain.
His government granted an amnesty to nearly 700,000 illegal workers in 2005 in an attempt to harness more taxes. Spain, with one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, depends on foreign workers to fill its tax coffers.
"Immigration demands integration, it cannot give way to a debate about exclusion and a lack of respect for our differences because that breathes life into the worst passions that destroy the way we live together," said Zapatero during a rally answering Rajoy's proposals.
Immigration associations in Spain reacted quickly to Rajoy's proposal.
"Just like Spaniards we also have our customs, a culture stacked to our skin. Relations and exchanges at work, within the community should take place smoothly, in a normal manner. But that is not what is being promoted, instead they are encouraging groups of second class people -'we must make them sign a contract and compel immigrants to respect our customs' they say, but which are those customs we have to respect? And what about ours? Who is going to respect our customs?," said Colombian-born Esteban Cancelado Gomez, vice-president of the Spanish Federation of Immigrants and Refugees.
Although there are no obvious signs of conflict, Spaniards regularly rank immigration as one of their major worries in opinion polls, alongside unemployment and terrorism.
Immigrants themselves are not a target for votes as foreigners can only vote if their country gives Spaniards the right to participate in elections, which very few do.
Nigerian Herbert Lawani has lived in Spain for nine years and his concerns are similar to many Spaniards at a time of rising inflation and unemployment. He can't vote, but if he could he would give his vote to the conservative Partido Popular because he thinks they'd do a better job on the economy. He told Reuters about his experiences in the country.
"I can see that Spanish people, about the treatment, I can see they are trying, based on my own experience. But there are some of them also that have, I feel, for me, they still have a long way to go as regards about immigrants. They have to have the spirit of integration, they have to learn how to integrate with other people because we are treating with people from different cultures, different languages," said the 27-year-old businessman pushing a young baby in a pram out from a municipal building in Madrid where foreign workers' permits are issued.
Argentinian-born Noemi Otazu obtained Spanish nationality in 2006, after five years as a resident in the country. A 37-year-old biochemist working as a project manager for France Telecom in Madrid, Otazu is a first time voter in Spain. Like many Spaniards she is yet undecided, although one thing is clear to her: her vote is not something to bargain with.
"My vote is not only a right I have earned, to me it is also an obligation --many foreigners won't be able to vote, others will chose not to.
I wouldn't like to see the immigrant vote used in a partisan way, being manipulated to serve an electoral benefit. That would mean we obtained the nationality for the wrong reasons. Rather, us foreigners should be able to discuss immigration policies openly, our voices should be heard," she said.
Immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, where strong economic growth recently led to an influx of workers from Morocco, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
The number of foreign residents surpassed 4 million for the first time in 2006, reaching 9 percent of the population at a faster rate of growth than the rest of Europe put together.
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