The initiative, which coincided with the arrival this weekend of the biggest single boatload of African would-be immigrants to Spain, has alarmed EU governments which favour tighter controls. But Spain insists its humane response to hundreds of thousands who seek a foothold in Europe - and who help to keep the Spanish economy afloat - points the way for a continent becoming more dependent on immigrant labour. "Immigration for a socialist government is not just a policy of public order or border controls," said the Immigration Minister, Consuelo Rumi.
For the next three months, any immigrant who has lived in Spain since August and can produce a job contract may apply for a year's residence and a work permit. Up to 1.5 million immigrants may qualify, but no one knows how many work illegally in construction, domestic service and agriculture.
Germany and The Netherlands criticise Spain for acting alone. "If some countries are regularising illegals, they cannot look just at their own situation," said Otto Schily, Germany's Interior Minister. "This legalisation process will have consequences for the rest of Europe because immigrants will then be able to move on freely to France and Germany." The Dutch Immigration Minister, Rita Verdonk, said: "We must discuss the consequences of such measures for other EU countries."
Such misgivings fuelled opposition from Spain's conservative Popular Party. Angel Acebes, the PP's general secretary, warned of a "massive" response, as those who obtain permits can be joined by their families, placing Spanish health and education services under strain. But the government insists costs will be covered once immigrants and their employers start paying tax and social security contributions. Most of Spain's illegal immigrant workers are Latin Americans on tourist visas, and Moroccans who slip border controls.
The 227 African boat people who landed in the Canary Islands two days before the announcement will not benefit from the amnesty. Police in Tenerife were interrogating the voyagers yesterday before issuing deportation orders. Many of them may end up wandering Spanish streets, selling drugs or prostituting themselves.
The landing focuses Europe's attention on the Canary Islands, Spain's principal entry point for clandestine Africans since sophisticated surveillance stemmed the traffic across the Strait of Gibraltar last year.