Illegal immigrants defy Spanish government and win

Thousands of "Sin Papeles" get papers

A seven-week occupation of 10 Barcelona churches earlier this year resulted in a victory for illegal immigrants in Spain. The occupations have spread to and continue in other towns. The anarchosyndicalist Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) was chosen by the immigrants to be their spokesperson. Chris Robinson a member of the CGT reports for Workers Solidarity on a struggle that has lessons for the anti-racism movement.

Emigration is still the tendency here, and there are more Spaniards living abroad than foreigners in their own country. Nevertheless, the 1990's saw a noticeable increase in immigration, chiefly from North Africans and South Americans, the latter a traditional source of immigration, followed numerically by Eastern Europeans and Asians.

Whereas in the early 1990's the immigrants were principally organised by institutional trade unions (CC.OO) and Catholic institutions, at the end of the decade found that they preferred to organise themselves, either by themselves or within direct democratic organisations, such as the CGT.

In Catalunya two clear stratergies arose:

The Citizens against the Foreigners' Law platform, composed of institutional trade unions, political parties, and religious organisations, was supportive of the government's plan to hire immigrant workers in their country of origin under negotiated quotas. Their policy was that illegal workers in Spain would receive preference if they returned to their home countries and applied for visas.

The Papers per Tothom (Papers for All) platform, formed by independent immigrant organisations and the anarchosyndicalist CGT and CNT-AIT unions. This Platform insisted that the only ground for negotiation was the right of all immigrants for work permits without any other considerations.

One of the most active organisations in Papers per Tothom was Portes Obertes (Open Doors), a group of immigrants within the CGT, started mostly by South American domestic workers, spreading to other nationalities and workers.

The Protest

On January 20th, a group of 360 immigrants called by CGT and Portes Obertes locked themselves in Santa María del Pi, a small central parish church in Barcelona, starting a hunger strike and demanding work permits for all illegal immigrants in Spain. Within weeks hundreds more were to lock themselves in an additional 9 churches in Barcelona and several more in other towns throughout the country. The immigrants demanded to meet with the government to formalise their demands, electing Norma Falconi, an Ecuador immigrant and member of the CGT as their representative. From the first day onwards, all decisions were taken in assemblies by the hunger strikers in each church, through complicated multilingual debates. An ad hoc federation took shape, centred around the Santa María del Pi group.

Meanwhile, on the outside, the two platforms decided to work together convoking joint demonstrations, although only Papers per Tothom supported the hunger strike. Together, several demonstrations and sit-ins were held during the course of the protest, and over 62,000 signatures supporting the protest were collected.

On January 25th, the government representative for the province of Barcelona, met with the negotiating committee of the locked-in hunger strikers, formed by Papers per Tothom, the CGT and representatives from the Pakistan, Indian, Bengali and Senegalese collectives.

The provincial representative offered to request that the central government contemplate increasing the amount of rejected requests for work permits under revision from 12,000 to 15,000 out of a total of 34,000 in that province. This was rejected by the strikers' assemblies which insisted that their demand be extended to all immigrants in Spain and voted to maintain the hunger strike until they received a firm offer in writing.

The government's offer to include "humanitarian reasons" as a cause for demanding work permits, together with a promise to favourably revise all 34,000 rejected applications and to refrain from expelling illegal immigrants brought the hunger strike to an end on 4th February.

The lock-in continued, however, as the immigrants insisted on written guarantees. Negotiations carried on and off until March 2nd when the immigrants' demands were signed by the government, the CGT and the Archbishop, who was asked to oversee that the agreement be respected.

On March 7th, the last immigrant received his residency permit formalised through CGT lawyers and volunteers, and all protesters left the churches simultaneously. By June 2nd, over 90% of the new applications for work permits based on the Barcelona agreement had been accepted and the others were still under study.

Although the final agreement was only for Barcelona province, immigrants in other provinces have also locked themselves in and are obtaining similar results.

Civil Disobedience

For years before this protest started, the CGT has called on society to commit acts of civil disobedience in favour of immigrants. Members have rented houses from racist landlords, then immediately sublet the houses to immigrants. "Self-employed" immigrants such as street vendors with no possibility of a work permit are fictitiously "hired" as domestic help: the immigrant pays his social security, obtains a work permit and carries on with previous work until a better job can be found. More drastic cases have included raids in the middle of the night to free people under modern slavery, moving them to other cities.

The organisation itself defies the foreigners' law by allowing illegal immigrants, who by law have no right to assembly, the use of its offices and meeting areas. Papers are provided to help immigrants "prove" that they were residents during amnesty periods. Other organisations such as the communist dominated trade union the CCOO have been known to pass "impossible" cases on the CGT.

All of this, combined with the freedom to self-managed organisation within Portes Obertes, the CGT immigrant organisation, and within the trade unions has surprised immigrants, more accustomed to a patronising attitude with imposed leadership, or simply being used as tools to obtain funding, as occurs with most institutional, left-wing and religious organisations.

For information on the anti-racism struggle in Ireland see

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This edition is No65 published in July 2001