Spanish and Catalan compete for the immigrant’s tongue in Barcelona

In the Spanish city of Barcelona, located in the autonomous community of Catalonia, the Spanish and Catalan languages are competing to become the adopted language of new immigrants to Spain.

This phenomena was discussed at a seminar on immigration policies in Spain, an event which was held by the Institute of Autonomous Studies (Institut d’Estudis Autonomics ) and the Forum of Federations in Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, on March 26, 2010. Academic assistance was provided by the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Participants were all experts from around Spain, as well as from the European Union and Canada. It was one in a series of activities that the Forum has been conducting around the theme of immigration and immigrant integration in federations.

This seminar addressed the implications of immigration reform legislation passed by the Spanish parliament in 2009. This law provides significant new roles for Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, which are like states or provinces, in a number of areas. The new responsibilities include: granting initial work permits, offering training courses immigrants must take if they wish to renew their permits and developing arrangements to certify each immigrant’s level of integration.

Although the new law applies to all of Spain’s regions, the autonomous community of Catalonia is taking the most proactive stance. In part, this reflects the significant recent growth of immigrants in that region. (In 2009, some 1.5 million of Catalonia’s population of 7.5 million were foreigners.)

Immigration has a particular resonance in the region of Catalonia because it is linked with a process of nation-building. As explained by Ricard Zapata-Barrero, a university professor with the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Catalonia, immigrants are seen as potential allies in that nation-building process and there is a focus on assisting them to learn and work in the Catalan language.

The attraction of the Spanish language is nevertheless strong. As participants noted, the dynamic is not unlike the pattern in Quebec that led to the adoption of laws to promote French some 30 years ago.

Intergovernmental relations are clearly becoming more important in this policy field. As Carles Campuzano, a member of Spanish Congress, pointed out, effective implementation of the new law will require collaboration among political actors. A number of collaborative mechanisms are in place (see presentation by David Moya), important issues nevertheless remain unresolved.

For example, while the autonomous communities will be able to issue initial work permits, their renewal remains the responsibility of the Spanish government. Financing will be a major issue in the coming years. As Oriol Amorós, secretary for immigration of the government of Catalonia explained, the autonomous communities and municipalities bear many of the costs for immigrant integration, but it is not clear the projected increase in funding from the Spanish government will keep pace with the costs of integration.

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