Spain’s Decentralized Immigration System Allows Local Integration Policies to Lead the Way
Spain is one of Europe’s largest migrant destinations, with a foreign-born population of more than 7.3 million. Immigration is a recent phenomenon, with Spain largely an emigration country until the 1990s. Since then, the European Union’s open labor market, Spain’s growing economy, and preferential visa options for citizens of former Spanish colonies in Latin America have contributed to the foreign-born population’s more than sixfold growth since 1998. In fact, in the first decade of the 21st century, Spain’s immigrant population grew faster than that of any other EU Member State.
The rapid pace of immigration has at times challenged the government’s ability to respond, particularly to address the integration of a growing number of asylum seekers and other arrivals from countries outside the European Union. The first national law addressing immigration, the 1985 Ley de Extranjería, considered immigration to be a temporary phenomenon and was largely enacted as a precondition for entering the European Community, the European Union’s predecessor. The law was updated in 1996 to reflect the growing recognition that immigration is more than temporary, but despite some legislation and strategic planning in the years since there remains no national program on immigrant integration.
Instead, responsibility for immigrant integration has largely been handed to Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, which enjoy wide authority as result of the country’s devolved political system. Matters relating to asylum, border control, and legal status are exclusive to the national government, but policies key to integration—including social services, housing, and employment—have been granted to subnational governments through measures such as Organic Law 4/2000. In the absence of national guidance, autonomous communities have developed their own approaches to migrants living within their borders.
Because of this system, Catalonia, and particularly its capital, Barcelona, has become a model throughout Europe for integrating migrants, especially those arriving without legal status. Barcelona’s 2016 Refuge City plan reflected its status as a growing destination for migrants lacking legal status, who often encounter unique cultural, economic, and legal barriers and therefore require the most integration supports.
This article examines local migrant integration innovations in Catalonia and also discusses Spain’s bifurcated system of immigration management.
Why Catalonia Prioritizes Integration
Spain’s decentralized political system has been a crucial method of unifying a nation with discrete and powerful regional identities since its return to democracy following the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75). Each of the 17 regions has its own legislature, its own bureaucracy, and relatively wide latitude within the bounds of the constitution. There are also two autonomous exclave cities on the African continent, Ceuta and Melilla, with their own governments.
In Catalonia, the regional government (Generalitat) and Barcelona’s city council (Ayuntamiento) have taken a leading role in addressing migrants’ needs. Leaders have identified asylum seekers as a population in particular need of support, even though the region hosts only 11 percent of all asylum seekers in Spain.
Box 1. Asylum Seekers in Barcelona and Spain
Barcelona assisted 16,700 asylum seekers between 2013 and 2018 and was estimated to be home to almost 12,000 asylum applicants in 2019.
Large numbers of asylum seekers have come to Spain more broadly, many in the years following the European migration and refugee crisis of 2015-16. The country went from having just under 2,600 asylum applicants in 2012, to 14,800 in 2015, and a high of 117,800 in 2019—more than either Italy or Greece. The number of new applicants has since declined somewhat, but still numbered nearly 65,300 in 2021.
Catalonia is a region of historical immigration and was one of exile as well during the Franco regime; residents’ intimate experiences with migration have informed the autonomous community’s “public philosophy of immigration” and resulting policy decisions, according to Barcelona-based migration scholar Ricard Zapata-Barrero. This regional memory has made Catalonia hospitable towards immigrants, as evidenced by the creation of the municipal Service for the Care of Immigrants, Emigrants, and Refugees (Servei d’Atenció a Immigrants, Emigrants i Refugiats, or SAIER) in the late 1980s.
Catalonia’s separatist tensions also act as a motivating factor. The region’s first Interdepartmental Plan on Immigration in 1993 was the first of its kind nationwide and was a precursor to national legislation that devolved social competencies to autonomous communities. The Catalan approach to integration is based on its 2005-08 Citizenship and Immigration Plan, which considered all residents eligible for social services and other supports, unlike other regions that limit access to citizens. Regional identity acquisition for immigrants was further stressed in Catalan Law 10/2010, which emphasizes cultural integration, including both Catalan and Spanish language acquisition, an issue that regional authorities consider imperative for both labor market access and social cohesion.
The Generalitat uses regional competencies such as those on education and health to challenge the national government as part of its bid for independence, both by emphasizing the region’s respect for human rights and demonstrating its “right to decide,” a key pillar of the separatist movement. At times these attempts to further extend Catalonia’s authority over migrant reception and integration have gone to the nation’s high courts, which have sided with Catalonia while also limiting its power to address reception and integration.
Although integration policy in Spain is de facto locally focused, Catalonia’s unique history, ideological leanings, and growing population of irregular migrants have combined to make the region a particularly interesting case study for examining immigrant integration processes. Indeed, the Catalan regional government and the city of Barcelona have developed innovative and inclusive integration policies that are worth noting.
Migrant-Friendly Services in Catalonia
Catalonia’s integration policies often focus on socioeconomic, cultural, and civic participation issues regardless of immigrants’ legal status. These attempt to address concerns related to housing, the labor market (including certifying professional degrees from abroad), language, and primary education, among others. Besides their progressive nature, many of Catalonia’s policies are notable in that they specifically target irregular migrants who may not be seeking permanent residence, unlike many integration policies targeting a broader “newcomer” group that includes permanent residents.
El Padrón: Equal Access to Social Services, Regardless of Legal Status
The first step to accessing integration support in Catalonia is registering with the municipal registry, the padrón municipal, which one can do regardless of legal or housing status. While the padrón is mainly used as a census record, each autonomous community maintains its own version and uses it for different purposes. In Catalonia, padrón registration is the only prerequisite for accessing social services including education, health care, and language courses. Registration is required for anyone residing in the municipality for longer than three months, providing proof of residency to migrants and the native born alike. Because unhoused individuals can also register, even migrants without a temporary or permanent address can receive social services. The registry is relatively well trusted and utilized by both Spaniards and noncitizens; authorities do not use it for immigration control and enforcement, unlike similar programs in other countries.
The padrón is one of the few national policies that addresses both immigration and integration. Though it primarily tracks residency—a concern of immigration and border control—it also addresses integration through access to social services, even if that is not its main function. The padrón is also helpful for irregular migrants working to receive residency through arraigo social, a system that grants legal status to migrants who have lived in Spain for at least three years.
The benefits available to migrants through registration in Catalonia are more expansive and inclusive than those offered by other autonomous communities. While the policy was designed to target all inhabitants, the resulting access to social services is a boon for irregular migrants.
Nausica: Barcelona’s Flagship Asylum Seeker Integration Program
As the number of asylum seekers increased following the 2015-16 refugee and migration crisis, politicians and the public alike criticized Spain’s asylum system for multiyear backlogs, the potential for families to be separated between different reception facilities, and slow processing. Spain was also expecting an increase in asylum applicants based on the 2015 EU relocation system, through which Spain committed to receiving 14,900 individuals (it ultimately received only 16 percent of the quota after two years). Given the criticism and the expected increase in arrivals, leaders in Barcelona created additional policies for reception and integration. While the rise in new asylum seekers occurred later in Span than elsewhere in Europe, arrivals nonetheless strained local systems; Barcelona estimated that it hosted 2,400 asylum seekers in 2016—about as many as the entire country received just four years earlier.
One answer was Nausica, a small but important program which helps asylum applicants, those denied asylum (who accounted for more than 71 percent of applications decided in Spain in 2021), and those whom the national reception system does not have capacity to support. The program focuses on three areas: basic needs such as temporary accommodation, food, transportation, and clothing; social support such as community activities, school enrollment, legal support, and psychological assistance; and assistance with employability, including providing language trainings and workshops.
Nausica served 275 people between 2016 and 2020. While rather limited, its outcomes so far have been notable: in 2020, 73 percent of participants who had reached the two-year limit for participation or opted for an early exit had secured housing, 52 percent were employed or self-employed, and 63 percent had demonstrated written Spanish proficiency, according to an unpublished program evaluation reviewed by the author.
The program also costs the city less than supporting the same individuals through pensions, another form of financial support that the municipality could direct toward asylum seekers. Nausica costs 36 euros per day per person, compared to 55 euros per day per person through a pension, which also provides less comprehensive programming. One program manager acknowledged to the author that even though Nausica reaches few asylum seekers, it is successful because it provides “integration possibilities for people who would otherwise not end up integrated into the society of Barcelona.”
Nausica is a landmark program not only for its comprehensive approach to increasing self-reliance but also because it supports asylum seekers who have timed out of the national support system or been denied asylum. Additionally, the program’s focus on treating participants as whole people with complex needs that involve social networks and other elements represents a move away from sole focus on the socioeconomic aspect of integration.
Barcelona Activa: Supporting the Job Hunt, Even without Legal Permission to Work
Some programs focus specifically on finding employment. Barcelona Activa, the city’s economic development agency, offers all residents Catalan and Spanish language courses and employment assistance such as resume reviews, mock interviews, job listings, and entrepreneurship incubators.
The service was initially developed to increase employment and promote key local economic sectors, public-private business partnerships, territorial marketing, and entrepreneurship. However, like the padrón it also is of significant value to irregular migrants. In addition to providing income, securing employment helps migrants meet the main qualification for obtaining a temporary residency permit through the regularization program arraigo laboral.
SOAPI: Getting to Know the New Neighborhood
Social services are key to setting up a new life in Barcelona but would be useless if migrants do not know where and how to access them. Enter the Orientation and Accompaniment Service for Immigrants (Servicio de Orientación y Acompañamiento para Personas Inmigradas, or SOAPI), a city-based service that provides hyper-localized integration support, including orientations on housing, health-care services, primary school registration, and community activities and organizations.
Through these offerings, the program recognizes that it is easier for new residents to establish roots and identities in their neighborhood rather than the city as a whole. Just as New Yorkers might first think of themselves as being from SoHo or Staten Island, residents of Barcelona self-identify based on neighborhoods, which are distinguished by everything from housing type to schools to unique cultural fiestas throughout the year. Without an orientation into the neighborhood’s specific offerings and quirks, migrants could spend years learning these nuances themselves.
Expansive Integration Policy at the Local Level
These local programs operate and are funded independently, yet they may be intertwined in practice. For example, migrants who have been denied asylum might enter the Nausica program, where they would be accompanied to their municipal registry appointment with the required paperwork. Nausica caseworkers could then help them access social services with the padrón, which may include connecting them to Barcelona Activa for employment opportunities and registering them for neighborhood orientation sessions with SOAPI.
These programs may seem very rights-expanding and unlikely to be enacted by politicians elsewhere. However, while liberal city leadership was certainly helpful in establishing the programs, Barcelona’s general approach has not changed based on leaders’ political affiliations. Civil-society groups have also been instrumental in advocating for policies and offering input as needed. Despite first appearances, many aspects of these policies might be replicable elsewhere, in other local districts interested in increasing social cohesion, mutual understanding, and economic productivity.
As just one of 17 autonomous communities in Spain, there is a limit to how much Catalonia and its largest city, Barcelona, can do to integrate immigrants and particularly irregular migrants nationwide, much less across the European Union. The lack of a nationwide integration program in Spain at times creates a disjointed situation in which migrants, particularly the most vulnerable, encounter different reception depending on where in the country they find themselves.
Yet Catalonia demonstrates the impact that local and regional governments can have if they are empowered to proactively shape migrants’ experiences in their communities. Due to its decentralized political system and history of regional pride, Spain is particularly primed for local governments to lead the way in migrant integration. As the institutions that interact with people most directly, local-level governments have repeatedly played crucial roles in welcoming migrants to their new homes.
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