Spain's Socialist government has put the final touches on a project to legalize the residence and employment here of an estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants
The bill which is expected to be approved Thursday during the last cabinet meeting of the year will favour those with a six months employment contract and who can also prove they have been in Spain for at least half a year.
According to government statistics nearly 3 million immigrants live in Spain out of a total population of just under 43 million. About 800,000 of those foreigners do not have visas or work permits, and most of them are expected to take advantage of the transitory measure that will "regularize" their status.
Latin Americans make up the biggest component of undocumented immigrants in Spain followed by North Africans and Eastern Europeans.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist who took office last April, negotiated the new rules with labour unions, management and immigrant organizations. However the conservative Popular Party, the main opposition group, is against the measure arguing economic and social repercussions of the mass legalization have not been studied adequately.
Once the new rules become effective, undocumented immigrants will have three months to present their contract and proof of six months' residence in order to qualify for the benefit.
Agricultural workers will have to present a contract for only three months, and domestic employees can benefit by showing that they work at least 30 hours per week, even if it is for different employers.
Last August Spain's Statistics Institute warned that the country's low birth rate and aging population will force greater reliance on immigrants to ensure an adequate work force. They further suggested that the country will need a quarter-million foreign workers as of 2010. Immigrants will then provide Spain's main impetus for population growth in the coming years with an expected total of over 50 million by 2025.
Only 6% of Spain's current 42.7 million people are immigrants; the largest group are Ecuadorians with 14.6%, followed by Moroccans and Colombians.
The Statistics Institute expects fertility rates to increase to 1.53 children per woman by 2030, compared with 1.25 in 2002. The projected rise is mainly attributed to higher child-bearing rates among immigrant women. But Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero early this month also underlined that every effort is being made to secure Spain's borders and prevent illegal immigration.
During a questions session in Parliament December first when it was suggested that the coming bill had already prompted an increase in the flow of immigrants to Spain, Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero replied that if off-the-books jobs become full positions in compliance with new regulations, if security at the border is tightened and if repatriation of unqualified immigrants is ensured, "we will be able to guarantee peace, a more orderly immigration and a greater number of legal immigrants with full assurances of human rights".