- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

From combined dispatches

MADRID — Britain and Spain moved in opposite directions on immigration yesterday, with London proposing to let in only skilled workers who speak English and Madrid offering amnesty to nearly 1 million illegal immigrants, rejecting criticism that its new policy would make the country — and Europe — a stronger magnet for migrants.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government said the amnesty — under which qualifying illegal aliens will get residency and work permits — will allow it to manage migration better, cracking down harder on those already living in Spain illegally as well as on those trying to get in.

Spain is the main gateway to Europe for illegal immigrants. An estimated 800,000 live in the country illegally.

The amnesty is an attempt to recognize that thousands of migrants are already working illegally without paying taxes or joining the social security system.

It also is underpinned by a desire to keep a closer eye on foreigners after the al Qaeda-linked bombings that killed nearly 200 people on March 11 last year.

Most of the Islamic militants accused of carrying out the attacks were born in Morocco and many of the victims also were immigrants.

To qualify for amnesty, migrants must have an identity document, prove they were in Spain before last August, have a job contract for at least the next six months and have no criminal record.

Britain took the opposite tack yesterday, proposing tighter immigration controls and saying only skilled workers who speak English should be permitted to settle in Britain permanently.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the government also would fingerprint all foreigners applying for visas to stop them from remaining in Britain once their permits expire.

The five-year plan is seen as a bid to outmaneuver the Conservatives and appear tough on the issue.

The measures, which would not affect citizens of the European Union, are part of a Europewide drive to tackle illegal immigration — an issue particularly sensitive for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government as it gears up for national elections expected in May.

The European Union’s justice and interior ministers hope to agree on common immigration and asylum rules by 2010. The EU policy is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and boosting the number of skilled immigrants.

The EU may end up creating common legal-migration standards, including rules for rejecting asylum seekers, and introducing a U.S.-style green card system aimed at attracting sought-after workers.

Immigration and asylum is politically sensitive in Britain. Asylum applications rose to record levels in 2002, and Mr. Blair has fought to get control of the issue.

The government has introduced tighter border controls, worked with France to close a refugee camp used by asylum seekers as a staging point to enter Britain illegally and has speeded up the pace of processing and returning failed asylum seekers.

But the Conservatives claim that problems continue unchecked and last month pledged to cap the number of immigrants. The party also promised to pull Britain out of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which obliges countries to take in asylum seekers based on need, regardless of numbers.

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