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Citizen Power in Action: A Legislative Initiative for Migrant Rights Through Direct Democracy

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Citizen Power in Action: A Legislative Initiative for Migrant Rights Through Direct Democracy


This article was written by Dr. Melike Akkaraca Köse, who is currently a researcher at ICS, Universidad de Navarra. She completed her research project on the role of emotions in Turkey-EU relations with MSCA post-doctoral fellowship. She was a Visiting Scholar at the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley between 2016-2020. She worked as Assistant Professor at Kocaeli University, between 2012 -2017. She has a B.A. in International Relations (Marmara University), and LL.M. and Ph.D. degrees in EU Law (Marmara University), an LL.M. degree in legal theory (KUB, Brussels) as a Jean-Monnet Scholar.

A current citizen initiative in Spain (Iniciativa Legislativa Popular, or ILP in its Spanish terminology) has recently made progress. This initiative aims to regularize the status of approximately half a million undocumented immigrants residing in Spain, by granting them legal residency and work authorization. Following verification of the collected signatures by the Electoral Census Office, the Lower House of Spain's Congress voted on April 9, 2024, to consider the proposal. The initiative received broad support, with 310 votes in favour and only 33 against. Notably, all parliamentary groups except Vox backed the proposal. This development marks a significant milestone in Spain’s participatory democracy, especially since the Spanish Constitution of 1978 enabled this direct democratic process. Historically, only two ILPs have successfully become laws, but none succeeding in the past decade. 

The initiative began two years ago, when the 'RegularizacionYa' Movement, made up of migrants and anti-racist organizations from all over Spain, launched a large campaign to collect signatures. The commission promoting the initiative was formed by the #RegularizaciónYa network, the Foundation for Global Citizenship (la Fundación para la Ciudadanía Global), the Foundation for Cause (la Fundación por Causa), the Network of Entities for Solidarity Development (REDES), the Alliance for Solidarity (Alianza por la Solidaridad) and the For a Fairer World party (el partido Por Un Mundo Más Justo). The "Essential Platform" campaign mobilized 14,000 volunteers from over 900 social organizations to gather 611,821 valid signatures, a figure that has since increased to over 700,000. This is particularly significant given that only about 10% of ILPs in the past have manage to gather the 500,000 signatures required to kickstart the legislative process in the Congress of Deputies. 

This proposal received the support of 900 NGOs and associations linked to immigration and other sectors of society, including the Catholic Church. It is also supported by more than 80 Spanish town councils, an island council, a provincial council and an autonomous parliament that, after approving motions in their respective plenary sessions, at the request of the Regularization Movement NOW, have sent their endorsement of it to the Congress. Among these municipalities, it is worth highlighting cities such as Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao or Santiago de Compostela, as well as the Cabildo of Tenerife, the Provincial Council of Cádiz and the Basque Parliament. The motion has had wide support in the ideological spectrum.

The ILP demands for an extraordinary regularization of those who already live and work in Spain because “the criteria for access to residence are highly restrictive and very difficult to comply with,” and on the other hand, “the administrative procedure implemented is slow, bureaucratic and has a high margin of discretion when granting authorizations or their renewal.” The ILP proposes a seemingly minor, yet impactful, change. It seeks to modify the first transitional provision of Organic Law 4/2000, which governs the rights and social integration of foreign residents in Spain. This provision allows the government to establish a procedure for regularizing the status of foreigners who were present in Spain before June 1, 1999. The proposal seeks to update the cut-off date from June 1, 1999, to November 1, 2021. This adjustment would allow a significantly larger number of undocumented immigrants currently residing and working in Spain to potentially qualify for regularization. The revised wording would empower the government, through a Royal Decree issued within six months, to establish a procedure for regularizing the status of “foreigners who are in Spanish territory before November 1, 2021.”

According to the explanatory statement by the ILP, the extraordinary regularization proposed by this bill "will make it possible to make visible the entire migrant population residing in the country, compensate for the inequalities that they present as a starting point, and at the same time, guarantee labour rights on a condition of equality, reducing situations of abuse and exploitation" since the system of access to residence contemplated in the immigration law is, according to the proposed text, "insufficient and limited and does not adjust to the current reality of people migrants who live and work in the Spanish State". This "generates a spiral of vulnerability and lack of protection that increases social exclusion and impacts society as a whole." According to data from the Regularización Now association, between 390,000 and 470,000 people reside irregularly in Spain, of which a third would be minors. 

The initiative underscores the hardships faced by irregular migrants, including labour exploitation and exclusion from essential public services like education and health. By regularizing their status, the ILP aims to provide these individuals with the legal protections and opportunities that are fundamental to equitable social integration. Proponents of the ILP argue that this regularization is essential not only for visibility and legal protection for the migrants but also for economic reasons. Regularization could potentially enhance fiscal contributions through direct taxes and social security payments, significantly benefiting the Spanish economy.

However, there are still several challenges ahead as the ILP progresses through the legislature. The government possesses a veto prerogative, allowing them to halt progress if the initiative is deemed disruptive to the budgetary plan. Should it proceed, the initiative will return to the Immigration Commission for amendments by parliamentary groups, followed by votes in both Congress and Senate. Here, a significant risk lies in potential amendments significantly altering the ILP's core principles, potentially weakening its effectiveness for the targeted immigrant population. An even greater hurdle is the possibility of discord among political parties, potentially leading to the ILP's abandonment during the amendment process. Historically, such citizen-driven initiatives, lacking the backing of a specific parliamentary group, tend to be indefinitely postponed within the legislative process. Despite these challenges, proponents of the ILP remain cautiously optimistic. They emphasize that with sufficient political will, the seemingly lengthy process could be resolved within two months, potentially leading to the proposal's enactment as law before the year's end.



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