Two major European countries are taking different approaches to the problem of illegal immigration. while Spain has launched an amnesty for some undocumented foreigners, Britain is tightening controls on immigrants and asylum-seekers.
There are more than one million undocumented foreigners living in Spain. Most of them are from South America, Morocco and Eastern Europe.
Under the amnesty, between 50 and 75 percent of these illegal immigrants will be able to qualify for residency and working papers. But, to do so, they need to prove that they have lived in Spain for at least six months, produce a contract from an employer offering them work for at least six months, and obtain a document from their home country stating that they have no criminal record.
Spain's Socialist government says the amnesty will allow it to keep a closer eye on foreigners after last year's Madrid terrorist bombing carried out by Islamic militants. It also expects to generate more tax revenue from undocumented foreigners who have been getting paid under the table and usually receive lower wages than Spaniards.
Critics of the plan say the most vulnerable illegal immigrants, such as those from Africa or from countries at war like Iraq and Afghanistan, will not be able to benefit from the scheme because they may be unable to obtain the documents from their home country that prove their identity.
The scheme is also raising hackles among Spain's partners in the European Union. Elmar Brok, a conservative member of the European Parliament from Germany, says the European Union must coordinate such policies as amnesties because, once illegal immigrants are recognized by one EU country, they have the right to move to most of the other members of the bloc.
"I think this must be done in cooperation," he said. "Otherwise, the policies of the European Union of open borders within the Union will be endangered. This is the type of question we now face in Spain…I think these unilateral decisions will create problems."
The Spanish move runs counter to clampdowns, or calls for them, in much of the rest of Europe. Immigration, especially from Muslim countries, has become a hot political issue in the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain.
The British government on Monday proposed an immigration reform package that would grant favorable treatment to professionals like doctors, nurses and teachers but would turn down unskilled migrants whom, it says, cannot contribute to the country's economy and risk becoming a burden by claiming welfare benefits. It also wants to limit the number of dependents immigrants are allowed to bring into the country.
British officials say the government also plans to step up the expulsion of asylum-seekers whose requests are turned down. And it wants to start fingerprinting all visa holders arriving in Britain by the year 2008.
The British news media say the country's ruling Labor Party seized on the immigration issue after a poll showed that the opposition Conservatives have struck a chord with the public by attacking what they called a chaotic immigration and asylum system. Britain is expected to hold a general election in May.