From invisible to activists: How Spain's migrants
self-organized to fight for their rights

Laura Herrero Garvín

Laura Herrero Garvín

On a hot Saturday in early autumn, workers were unloading grocery boxes, worth more than a thousand euros, from a truck parked next to a community center in Barcelona. Inside, five Honduran women wearing facemasks assembled folding boxes before packing them with  various food items.


“One of you put the beans, another one the rice, another one the coffee, and so on, please,” explained Paula Santos.


“How much tomato sauce?” one of the women asked. 


“Three units,” Santos responded. 


“If we don’t arrange it like a puzzle, it won’t fit,” one of the other women observed.


These women belong to Mujeres Migrantes Diversas (MMD) [“Diverse Migrant Women”], an association founded in 2017 by Honduran women working in domestic service and caregiving jobs in Barcelona. The group, coordinated by Santos and her colleagues, now has around 500 members, and aims at building mutual support networks and educating the women to stand up for their rights.


Two hours later, they had assembled 50 food baskets to be picked up the next day by women in need. Spain is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, and undocumented immigrants are among the hardest hit. Often, they were essential workers unable to isolate themselves or work remotely, much like the domestic and care workers who make up MMD.


Santos’ group is one of dozens of migrant associations that have emerged over the last decade in Spain, a country that until the late 1980’s didn’t have massive migration flows. When COVID-19 upended their livehoods, and the government provided little or no relief, these groups decided to tackle the issues that affect them by spearheading a movement to regularize undocumented immigrants known as the “Regularización Ya” (Regularization Now) campaign.


In April 2020 they launched their first campaign with the support of 900 migrant and solidarity groups in order to ask the Spanish government for “permanent and unconditional regularization in the face of the health emergency”. As soon as it was possible to take to the streets, mobilizations were organized in different cities. Given the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, Regularization Now presented a non-binding parliamentary initiative, with the endorsement of 10% of the deputies, in order to debate an extraordinary regularization bill in Congress.  Congresswoman for the  minority group ERC Maria Dantas, a naturalized Spanish citizen from Brasil who at one time was also undocumented, presented their case in Congress. 


Although their efforts are putting a bright spotlight on the issues faced by undocumented immigrants, so far, they have been unable to score any policy breakthroughs. The wave of public support they generated crashed against a gridlocked government where even those who support their cause have little political capital left due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, far-right political parties are pushing anti-immigration platforms, often taking a lesson out of the playbook of politicians in the United States, Britain and Italy


Despite the lack of policy wins, the campaign was a critical first step toward raising awareness of their plight and ensuring that all residents of the country are able to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 on equal footing. “At the beginning of the lockdown the politicians said they were going to nationalize the heroes of COVID-19, then we went from victims to heroes. But we don’t want to be either; we just want rights,” says Aziz Faye, a spokesperson for the Barcelona Street Vendors Union, which is among the groups pushing for regularization. “It cannot be that we are essential to work but not to have rights.”

Essential, but unprotected

More than a quarter of the household employees in the European Union are in Spain — only  Italy has a larger share — according to the EU Labor Force Survey 2018 collected by the UGT Union. Most of these workers are cleaners and caregivers, often undocumented migrant women who live in the houses where they work. Although the sector is more regulated than in other countries of the block, they are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse, including sexual assault. It was that risk and vulnerability that drove these migrant women to organize themselves. 


The seeds of MMD were sown when Santos met Johana López, another Honduran, while working as live-in maids for two related families who spent their vacations together. Now in their 30s, Santos and López have lived in Spain for more than a decade.


“When you work as a live-in maid, you are isolated and you despair, and you end up believing that you are going to be in that job all your life, that you have no other choice. They eliminate your life. All you think about is working, sending money and not getting fired,” said López.


For them, it was a blessing to meet each other and realize they were in the same situation, especially after months of loneliness and feeling misunderstood. That first emotional connection  became a formal association in 2017. 


“We don’t have labor rights, we don’t have decent contracts, we suffer sexual harassment and stigma. With the pandemic, we have the responsibility of not infecting those we care for — but who takes care of us?” asked Santos.


After healthcare workers, at-home women caregivers had the biggest exposure to COVID-19, with 16.3% of them contracting the virus, much higher than the nation’s average, which was around 10% at the height of the pandemic, according to a National Study of Seroepidemiology of Sars-Cov-2 infection, published at the end of 2020. 


For one such worker, Teresa Garcia, 38, MMD’s food baskets were a lifeline. An undocumented immigrant, Garcia worked in Barcelona as a caregiver for an elderly couple aged 92 and 94, earning 750 euros a month (200 euros less than minimum wage). She typically works five hours a day, every day, with no holidays or days off. She didn’t live with the couple, so when the pandemic started, she bought a scooter to avoid public transportation and reduce the chance of infection. The scooter also helped her avoid the police officers enforcing the lockdown.


Still, she was forced to quarantine in April 2020 for nearly a month when two of the four caregivers she shared a room with caught COVID-19. That meant earning no money as she was not entitled to sick leave or benefits. Eventually, her employers decided to pay her 350 euros for that month, but 300 of it went toward the rent and related housing expenses. It was MMD’s food baskets, she said, that saved her from starvation. 


Food is just one of the ways the association supports its members. With workshops on gender and labor rights, Catalan classes, support with immigration procedures and emotional comfort, the group is a lifeline for a lot of its members. When Teresa was evicted from her apartment, it was the network that helped her move to a safe, temporary accommodation, until she was able to find stable housing.

Many of the coordinators of Mujeres Migrantes Diversas have gone through similar experiences as Teresa. They all realized a safe haven was critical for migrant women’s survival. So they came together to open the “Feminist Community House for Domestic and Care Workers.”


It is a five-bedroom apartment with 11 beds in Gracia, a middle class neighborhood in Barcelona that provides a safe space to sleep, live and recover for migrant women facing temporary housing emergencies. 


“This house is a dream. If only I had had this possibility when my daughter arrived and I needed help to find a suitable place for both of us,” said Santos.


In the next room, López sweeps and mops the floor. In the living room, Juanita Avila, another member of the collective, watches over her 8-year-old grandson and helps them where she can. “We are all volunteers, so we find time whenever we can,” says Avila.


Instead of investing in an office or paying for a coordinator, the association, which registered as a nonprofit, invests all the donations of individuals and foundations in this house and they fix it up collectively, thus reinforcing their community fabric and emancipating themselves from welfare housing projects.


During the pandemic, besides distributing food baskets, the group also raised funds to help with rent and provide protective equipment like masks and gowns during the early weeks of the pandemic.

Teresa García shows her library card in front of La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. Spain's long naturalization process requires immigrants to develop ties to their communities and a library membership is a common first step for many migrants. (Photo by Majo Siscar/GroundTruth)
Teresa García shows her library card in front of La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. Spain's long naturalization process requires immigrants to develop ties to their communities and a library membership is a common first step for many migrants. (Photo by Majo Siscar/GroundTruth)

Stepping into activism

It wasn’t long before MMD realized that supporting migrant women meant political advocacy. It started when they were invited to speak to one of the commissions of the Catalan Parliament about their work conditions back in 2017, the year they formalized their group. In December of that year, they made recommendations on public policies regarding domestic, cleaning and care workers to the Barcelona City Council, together with three other organizations in their sector. When the pandemic started, they joined other migrant organizations to highlight the importance of their work, particularly during lockdown, and the need for a path to citizenship.  


The first Regularization Now proposal took inspiration from similar initiatives in neighboring countries that gave immigrants affected by the pandemic a streamlined path to citizenship. Portugal, for example, regularized all migrants who had applied for a residence permit prior to the pandemic in order to guarantee their access to health care. In Italy, a program for the temporary regularization of undocumented migrants working in agriculture and  domestic work received 220,000 applications. In France, where the data on COVID-19 is segregated by origin, the numbers reveal that migrants and ethnic minorities have experienced higher rates of infection, hospitalization and mortality than non-immigrants. In September 2020, the French government announced that it would naturalize those who had been in the frontline of the fight against Covid-19, but on December 22 they announced that they were processing these papers for only 700 people.


Spain didn’t even do that. After months of petitions and debates, the initiative started by Regularization Now was rejected by the legislature in September, with 278 out of 350 Congressmen voting against it. Not even Luc André Diouf, the first congressman of Senegalese origin, and a former undocumented worker himself, voted for the proposal, instead toeing the line of the ruling PSOE party. 


While a blanket regularization effort has stalled, recently, the government has been making covert and sectorial regularizations. At the end of 2021 the Government changed the Immigration Regulations to facilitate the regularization of foreign minors. The Ministry of Inclusion calculated that it is benefitting 8,000 protected minors and 7,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 23 who were in sheltered centers because when they arrived in Spain they were minors. 


But this policy clashes with that of the Interior Ministry. While the former finances humanitarian programs for migrants and asylum seekers, the Interior Ministry, controls the detention centers and deportations and ultimately has the last word on migration policy — even more so than the Ministry of Defense. In 2020, for example, while Italy and Portugal were carrying out partial regularizations, the Interior Ministry decided to increase the height of the fence separating Spain from Africa, which is now 10 meters high (32.8 feet) three feet higher than the U.S. wall with Mexico.

The pulse between competing policies inside the government is heavily tilted towards deportation. According to another investigation by the Por Causa Foundation, the Spanish state spends eight times more money (a total of 660 million euros between 2014 and 2019) detaining and removing migrants than facilitating their resettlement and social integration. 

A brand (and a cause) born on the streets

Other undocumented migrants in Spain, mostly of African descent, make their living by selling pirated goods in the streets. They are known as “manteros” (which roughly translates as “blanket people”) because they display their merchandise on blankets, which can be easily folded and carried away if they see police approaching. Facing increasing police harassment, — in 2015 the street vendor Mor Sylla died when he fell from a third-floor balcony while trying to flee from the police — one hundred street vendors created the union to fight for their rights. 


In 2017, they launched ‘Top Manta,’ their own, legal, clothing brand which combines western styles with some African motifs, often conveying the message that migration is not a crime. They could no longer be accused of selling piracy and had a vehicle to spread their message. Shortly after, they managed to open their own store in the center of the city and since then they’ve been growing their business and gaining notoriety for their brand and their ideas.


Before the pandemic, Top Manta had its workshop on the back of the store, but by 2020 they had outgrown the space and moved to another building two streets up —  a place run by anti-racism collectives in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona. The two-speed banging of about twenty sewing machines didn’t stop during the hardest moments of the lockdown. The street vendors could not go out to sell their wares, so they re-grouped in the union’s workshop and began to make masks, gowns out of garbage bags, protective caps and other protective gear which they distributed to hospitals, nursing homes and vulnerable people — free of charge. 


Faye, the manager of the workshop, claims that they manufactured and distributed 14,000 pieces of protective gear in just three months. At the same time, another union member, Lamine Sarr, ran a food bank where they collected donations to feed the families of 154 manteros. The president of the union, Daouda Dieye, coordinated the finances of both initiatives. 


Once the pandemic waned, the store resumed its regular activities. Faye, a native of Gambia, gave a pattern-making course in the mornings for the more advanced sewers, while volunteers taught Spanish and Catalan. After lunch, they would put the blackboard away, and the group of eight in the workshop grew to 20 people sewing masks, T-shirts or sweatshirts.


Despite their efforts, the union has been hit hard by the pandemic, as the flow of customers, both locals and tourists dried up for months and the lockdowns all but eliminated the opportunities for street sellers. The biggest challenge for the union has been generating the funds needed to support street vendors throughout the lockdowns. That motivated them to take an active role in the Regularization Now campaign. 


“During the pandemic, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said that no one would be ’left behind’, and introduced the minimum living income, a minimum monthly income for the most vulnerable families; but it seems that we, undocumented migrants, are no one,” said Dieye. 


“The union has been supporting the most vulnerable street vendors — something the government should have done — so now they should support us,” Faye concluded in a video.


Like MMD, the Street Vendors Union sees their activism as vital to the survival of their group.


“We didn’t come here to be “manteros”; we had our own trades and dreams,” says Dieye, adding that his struggle “goes beyond selling T-shirts; it’s political, it’s about our rights, and we’re going to keep on working.” 


Early on, the union coordinated with other anti-racism groups in the city, such as Espacio del Inmigrante [“Immigrant Space”] or Tanquem els CIE [Let’s stop CIEs (CIEs are the detention centers where undocumented migrants are held for a maximum of 60 days while waiting for deportation)]. Soon, they became political actors, first as interlocutors with the Barcelona City Council, then at the national level. In 2017 they promoted decriminalizing street selling, and succeeded in getting it debated in Congress as a law initiative, although it was not approved. 


Building on that experience, they have diversified their efforts to promote their cause at a wide variety of venues. They have given workshops about racism for school children, and lectures in universities; they have spoken in front of the Parliament of Catalonia, and have even managed to get an audience with the Pope. But perhaps most importantly, they have helped to set up collectives of street vendors in other major cities in Spain.


“We cannot wait for help from governments, from outside —  we have to build a world where we can live with dignity by ourselves”, said Aziz Faye in one of the talks on the Regularization Now campaign, with Paula Santos, from MMD, sitting next to him.


The case for regularization

Spain’s convoluted immigration and naturalization laws make it harder for undocumented migrants to find a path to citizenship outside regularization. The Spanish Immigration Law allows migrants to apply for legal residence after a minimum of three years of residence in the country, starting from the moment the migrant registers with a municipality, but, during that time they are not allowed to work legally, a contradiction that pushes many immigrants to the informal economy. Also, migrants must demonstrate a certain degree of social integration as well as fluency in Spanish — and Catalan too, in Catalonia. They must also have a full time job offer with a contract with a duration of at least one year.  


In most cases, obtaining a one year job offer with a contract is hard, since employers typically offer three month contracts. This pushes migrants into informal work in agriculture, caregiving or tourism for meager salaries, while they look for a one-year contract. Those who can’t find a job in those industries, resort to helping people park their cars on the streets for tips, collecting scrap metal or other odd jobs to make ends meet. Migrants can be detained and deported at any point of this process. 

“The Immigration Law is feeding Spanish employers with cheap workers who lack rights, and uses the CIEs to terrorize and intimidate them,” states Aurea Martin, from ‘Tanquem els CIEs  in Barcelona.


“Migrants have been an absolutely indispensable part of the social machinery and yet this is a system designed to punish them,” said Gonzalo Fanjul, a researcher at the Por Causa Foundation. 


Around 500,000 undocumented migrants live in Spain, but their contribution to the tax base is limited, given that they only pay indirect consumption taxes, according to the study “Foreigners, undocumented and essential: A snapshot of irregular immigration in Spain,” co-authored by Fanjul and published in June 2020 by the Por Causa Foundation and Carlos III University. They estimated that if these immigrants were granted residence, the Spanish economy would go from spending about 2,000 euros per immigrant per year to a net contribution to the tax base of 3,250 euros per immigrant. In other words, more than 5,000 euros per immigrant per year would be recovered by the Spanish economy simply by regularizing their status. This would amount to around 1.5 billion euros per year.


“It would be good business for the country, not to mention the ethical and moral side,” Fanjul says.


Spain is no stranger to amnesties. The country has carried out five mass regularizations of undocumented immigrants since the 1990s, with the latest being in 2005 under a socialist government. Those were times of economic bonanza and residence was granted to half a million people, who were able to join the Social Security contributions.The condition for immigrants to gain legal status was that their employer had to sign a job contract with them for at least six months. An immediate consequence was that immigrants who were granted amnesty began to pay new taxes, particularly social security contributions.


In the paper “Understanding the Effects of Legalizing Undocumented Immigrants”, the economist of the Universitat de Barcelona, Joan Monras demonstrated that social security contributions increased by 4.189 euros for each immigrant who was legalized.


“These measures would provide these people with administrative dignity and rights, and they would send a very strong message in the fight against racism,” said Pablo Echenique, spokesperson of Unidas Podemos in Congress.

Daouda Dieye, a member of the Barcelona Street Vendors Union shows the traditional garb from Senegal, his country of origin, one of his prized possessions. (Photo by Majo Siscar/GroundTruth)
Daouda Dieye, a member of the Barcelona Street Vendors Union shows the traditional garb from Senegal, his country of origin, one of his prized possessions. (Photo by Majo Siscar/GroundTruth)

The first non-legislative proposal for mass regularization presented by the migrant movement was supported by 1,500 organizations but rejected by the Congress. However their influence is growing, last year Podemos included Serigne Mbayé, spokesperson for the Madrid Streetvendors Union, as a candidate in the regional elections. The same afternoon that he announced it, the alt right party Vox published Mbaye’s photo with the sentence “we will deport him” on Instagram and Facebook, despite Mbayé being a Spanish citizen since 2018. Finally, Mbayé was elected to the Madrid Assembly, a small but significant step for immigrants in the country and proof that despite the setbacks, activism can lead to change. 


Despite the setback in Congress, experts believe the regularization movement has gained ground with the pandemic. Recently,  the ‘Regularization now’ campaign has shifted its approach  and instead of trying to lobby politicians, it’s aiming to show them that their constituents are in favor of regularization. The group is aiming to gather  500,000 signatures from Spanish citizens to present a popular legislative initiative that would force a debate of the issue in Congress and perhaps a new vote. The campaign is called ‘Esenciales’ (Essentials) appealing to the migrants contributions during the pandemic.


“We are facing something too big to ignore, 14% of migrants in our country are undocumented. The initiative allows us to change the lives of people who live with us but with a de facto segregation that we have assumed too naturally”, explains Fanjul from Por Causa. 


Meanwhile, both the Barcelona Streetvendors Union, Mujeres Migrantes Diversas as well as other migrant organizations continue to stand up for and network on behalf of their undocumented comrades. “For me the most important thing now is networking; together we can achieve much more,” said Santos.

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