Immigrants Have Helped Set Catalonia Apart in Spain

Published: October 30, 2012

BADALONA, Spain — Catalonia’s gathering drive to separate from Spain has been a mixed blessing for Enrique Shen.

It has been good for business. Last month, before a giant rally in neighboring Barcelona to support independence, Mr. Shen ran out of the Catalan flags he sells as a wholesaler because customers had snapped up about 10,000 of them in just a week.

But as an immigrant who moved here from Shanghai 20 years ago, he is worried by the way separatists advance their case for nationhood with claims to a distinct Catalan national culture, language and identity that set it apart from Spain. “It’s always best to be part of a larger country, just like having a bigger family to help you,” Mr. Shen said.

Immigrants like Mr. Shen illustrate the complexities of identity in Catalonia, where they have helped make the economy both the largest among Spain’s regions and the most diverse, alongside Madrid, with sizable populations of Muslims, Sikhs, Chinese and others.

As Catalonia prepares for a regional election on Nov. 25 that could become an unofficial referendum on independence, as many as 1.5 million residents of the region, out of a total population of 7.5 million, will not be eligible to vote because they are not Spanish citizens.

While these newcomers have played little part in the separatist debate so far, their sheer numbers and their contributions to Catalonia’s economy have indirectly reinforced the claims by some politicians that the region should occupy a place in the European Union separate from Spain. With annual output of about $260 billion in goods and services, an independent Catalonia’s economy would be larger than a dozen of the union’s 27 members.

Cities like Badalona, just northeast of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, illustrate the social and economic challenges that Catalonia faces, whatever the outcome of the separatist drive.

Last year, Badalona, with a population of 220,000, elected a hard-line conservative mayor, Xavier García Albiol, “in part due to his polemical views linking immigrants from Romania and other countries to crime and promising a tougher stance on illegal immigration,” the United States Department of State said in its most recent human rights report on Spain.

Mr. García Albiol is one of only a few politicians from the governing Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to win office in Catalonia. In step with his conservative colleagues, Mr. García Albiol opposes separation, and he has cast a large shadow over Badalona’s immigrants, to the point that he has been sued based on accusations of inciting hatred against the local Roma population.

“One reason I got elected is because people could see that I was ready to identify a problem and take action to resolve it,” Mr. García Albiol said in an interview.

Asked to explain the problem, Mr. García Albiol said, “A large part of the migrants came here to work, but a small part also arrived with the sole intention of becoming delinquents, stealing and making life generally impossible for all their neighbors.” For this minority, he concluded, “the only solution is police pressure, efficient judicial action, and if possible, send them back to their countries.”

This year, Mr. García Albiol tried unsuccessfully to block the opening of a new mosque in Badalona. The mayor’s immigration policies are “a bad joke,” said Abdelkrim Latifi I Boussalem, who helps run Amics, an association that offers Islamic teaching and Arabic language classes in Badalona.

Still, Mr. Latifi I Boussalem, who left his native Casablanca, Morocco, 22 years ago, said the municipality struggled to accept the Moroccans and Pakistanis who form the bulk of the city’s Muslim population even before the city elected Mr. García Albiol.

“All the major political parties display some fear of Islam,” he said. “It’s never been easy, but at least other politicians used to talk to us and didn’t just call us a problem.”

Mr. Latifi I Boussalem contended that recent immigrants should have a say in any independence referendum. “We’re not here to dilute Catalan identity, and are ready to work hard to understand the place in which we live, especially since Catalonia has always been a land of welcome and refuge.”

Before World War II, Catalonia’s population was about 2.9 million, but it doubled in the decades afterward as Spaniards flocked to the region’s industries from poorer, more rural parts of Spain. Mr. García Albiol’s father, for instance, came from Andalusia in the 1960s, at the peak of that migration movement.

More recently, Catalonia has been at the forefront of a wave of immigration that started in the late 1990s, when Spain opened its doors to millions of overseas workers to fuel a construction-led boom. That boom ended in 2008 with the world financial crisis and the collapse of the real estate bubble here, and many of the immigrants have either started to leave or been forced into the ranks of Spain’s unemployed, who now make up 25 percent of the labor force.

“For most of the immigrants we help, their only preoccupations now are finding a job, making sure their papers are in order and meeting their basic needs,” said Fátima Ahmed, the spokeswoman for Ibn Batuta, an association based in Barcelona that offers legal and social services to immigrants. These issues, she said, “are very far from a political debate that they don’t even have the right to vote in.”

In fact, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, said in a recent interview that it was unclear whether a formal referendum on separation would be open to legal immigrants.

Sikhs are among the immigrants here who express some empathy for the separatist movement, drawing a parallel with their own struggles at home. An estimated 13,000 of the 21,000 Sikhs who have moved to Spain since 2000, mostly from India’s Punjab region, have settled in Catalonia.

Gagandeep Singh Khalsa, who is fluent in Spanish but prefers to speak Catalan, acts as a local spokesman and interpreter for his fellow Sikhs. “I feel in harmony with the people here,” he said, “because we have been facing the same problems with India over the Punjab as they have with Spain.”