Spain's Immigrants Suffer in Economic Downturn

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Andrea Comas / Reuters

Two workers stand on a crane to protest construction company Ploder Uicesa's unpaid debt to Jigar outside Madrid. The banner reads, "Allowed dire straits"

For five months, Doney Ramírez has been living on top of a 130-ft. (40 m) construction crane in the middle of Pozuelo, a wealthy town on the outskirts of Madrid. Confined to a space no bigger than a closet, he's forced to sit or squat all day. The 35-year-old Colombian construction worker has braved snow, dangerous winds, lightning, rain and now scorching heat. His meals are raised to him by rope twice a day; he uses bottled water to clean himself; to keep busy, he rereads the same three books over and over again.

Ramírez has taken to the crane in protest, hoping to save his job and those of his co-workers. If he succeeds, he'll be one of the lucky few. Five million migrants have arrived in Spain since 2000, heeding the country's invitation to fuel its booming construction industry. But when the financial crisis hit, construction around the country halted and Spain's economy buckled. Now Spain's immigrant population is suffering unlike any other in the West. And its numbers — along with its problems — will only continue to grow.

The wave of immigrants into Spain has been fast and furious. The nation's foreign-born population shot up from little more than 2% in 2000 to more than 12% in 2010. "The process was so quick and so intense that Spaniards and politicians had a hard time understanding what was happening," says Josep Oliver, an applied-economics professor in the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona and one of the lead authors of the Yearbook of Immigration in Spain 2009.

Then came the credit crunch, with its mass layoffs, stagnant growth and fiscal austerity. More than a million migrants have lost their jobs, homes and small businesses in a boom-to-bust cycle not seen since the Great Depression in the U.S. To be sure, migrants around the world are feeling the pain of the recession. But Spain's massive and recent immigrant influx, compounded by economic restructuring beyond the construction industry, has taken a particularly high toll on foreigners, magnifying the crisis for the country as a whole.

Ramírez, who is now also a Spanish citizen, is still employed, but he intends to live on top of the crane until the small construction company he works for, Jigar, is paid 150,000 euros it's owed by a larger company that has gone bankrupt. "I do this out of solidarity and because it's not fair that big companies get a break in the crisis, while regular people like me risk losing our homes if we miss one payment," he told TIME by cell phone. "But my big fear is that if my boss doesn't get paid, we'll lose our jobs too." His concern is not unwarranted: dozens of Spanish construction companies have gone under since the crisis took hold in 2007.

"Everything seemed to be going well, but when the crisis did come, immigrants were severely battered," says Georges Lemaitre, a Paris-based immigration expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). "They are in a particularly bad situation in Spain, compared to other countries." Part of that is due to the sheer number of immigrants in the country. In a list compiled by the OECD of foreign-born population as a share of overall population, Spain ranks ninth. But of all the OECD countries with a foreign population of at least 10%, unemployment within the immigrant community is by far the highest in Spain. More than 30% of foreigners in Spain are out of work — almost double the rate of jobless natives, according to government figures released in July. The runner-up is Ireland, with 15% of its immigrants currently unemployed.

The construction sector is the hardest-hit. From 2000 to 2007, Spain added 1.2 million direct construction jobs, only to shed them over the past two years, according to a government-commissioned study of immigrants in the labor force that was released earlier this month. That doesn't include the layoffs from jobs indirectly connected to the construction sector. "And many of these jobs won't be recovered," says economic professor Oliver. "The Spanish case is a lesson. If a country's economy is based on low-skilled labor, like construction, and there is a crisis, the blow can be traumatic."

Unemployment isn't the only issue. The rate of mortgage delinquency among foreigners in Spain is 10 times higher than among native Spaniards. Tax revenue and social-security contributions, along with consumer spending, are also falling within the immigrant community, making it all the more difficult for Spain — with one of the highest deficits in the OECD, at 11% — to stimulate its economy.

As the government struggles to find a solution, the situation for Spain's immigrants looks to only get worse. Despite their plight, immigrants are not leaving Spain in droves — even as the government offers to pay for return tickets, with the option to return in three years. Instead, more are coming in. The government estimates that as many as 2,000 foreign laborers are leaving every month, but the numbers entering are far greater. While there are plans to implement stricter immigration policies, the families of foreigners legally residing in Spain are expected to drive immigrant-population growth even during the recession. In 2009, of the roughly 157,000 people given permission to live in Spain, almost half did so to reunite with their families, a bigger share than in previous years. "Most immigrants fit into this pattern," Oliver says. "They will weather the storm because they have little to look forward to back home."

Ramírez insists he will not return to Colombia, even if he's fired. "My three children have a better education and health care, and the quality of life is better," he says. "But things are really bad here. Many of my friends are just waiting for a new construction to get a job. Who knows how long they can wait."