Immigration in Spain – How to Have an Ellis Island Experience

May 8, 2013

We all know about Ellis Island – the famous funnel that for decades brought immigrants into New York City.

No American History class would be complete without the descriptions of the long lines of tired, poor and huddled foreign masses yearning to breathe free in Our Beloved Homeland.

But did you know that you can have your very own Ellis Island experience right here in Madrid?

Why yes… you can.

And if you’re a non-European Union immigrant – or expat, if you prefer – you probably someday will!

immigration in spain - getting a spanish residency card

The old prison hospital in Aluche is where foreigners in Madrid have to go for our ID cards, and any day of the week you can go there for a real immigrant experience, just like your (or at least my) poor onion-farming ancestors once had upon entering the US.

(If your ancestors arrived on a chartered flight from somewhere, good for you.)

Immigration in Spain – Welcome to the European Union

People from other EU countries, of course, have a somewhat easier system, in which they are greeted by 12 beautiful Andalusian women in flamenco dresses the minute they step off the plane.

“¡Olé! Welcome to Spain, handsome foreigner!” smiles Maria from Córdoba. She’s achingly beautiful, or at least so I’ve heard.

“Here’s your ID card, here’s the key to your rent-controlled flat, and here’s your first welfare check. Now would you like some gazpacho?”

Seriously. It’s true.

The lesson here?

Hope to be reincarnated as an Italian.

But in this life (if you weren’t lucky enough to be born in the EU), you’re going to have a somewhat more difficult time of getting a Spanish residence permit.

The old prison hospital, first of all, is on Avenida de los Poblados, which seems to divide the civilized “European” part of Madrid from the barbarian-controlled territories to the south.

Leaving the metro at Aluche, you can see an endless stream of people walking in the direction of the old hospital.

Official address: sin número.

Along the way, some enterprising folks will stand on the sidewalk selling tamales or Fanta or international phone cards to passers-by.

A billboard as you’re getting close to your destination says “Reconcíliate con DIOS… ¡Llámanos!” I forgot to write down the number, but if you want to reconcile yourself with God, just go visit the billboard. I’m sure it’ll be worth your time.

Once you arrive at the old prison, you’ll be whisked through the metal detectors to the courtyard, where you’ll be spending the next three to five hours standing in line.

I hope you brought your sunblock and a sandwich!

People have told me that back in the early 2000s, it was more like 8 to 10 hours, but those were the golden years of immigration in Spain… Not like these days of brain-drain, where even the party girls are leaving.

My personal Ellis Island Experience

I was down there on Monday, and at quarter to nine in the morning found myself at the end of a very long line of people who had arrived early.

They have a couple of circus tents set up in the courtyard so you don’t have to be in the sun all morning.

It’s a surreal environment, like those Dalí paintings of weird, nonsensical shit happening in the desert. The sun beats down on our heads, in what appears to already be the post-apocalypse.

But the best thing is… it’s only a few metro stops from Gran Vía!

Spain, land of contrasts…

That day, I was behind a pair of nuns – one from Zimbabwe who had that enviable Received Pronunciation accent, and the other Spanish, who had apparently come as interpreter. A minute later a woman who was most likely a Japanese supermodel came and stood behind me.

The mix of people down there is always really fascinating – some look like they might have been smuggled into the country in a crate full of mangoes, and others look like they probably arrived by private jet.

But however we’ve arrived, we all need a NIE.

As usual, I’m almost the tallest person there, and (excepting the Japanese supermodel) also the whitest. If being pale were an Olympic sport, of course, I would have had Spanish nationality years ago and would be happily winning gold medals for the national team.

But that sort of nationality-by-decree thing is reserved for the truly talented. People like Ricky Martin – damn you President Zapatero!

First you ruin the economy and now THIS? 

I look at the long line and realize that I’m going to be there all morning. The Japanese supermodel takes out a book.

I can’t read Japanese, but if the cover illustration is any indication, it was about either Zen painting or cherry blossoms.

Sure enough.

Just like nearly every Japanese book I’ve read.

The line starts moving around 9:15. Very slowly snaking towards the office where the civil servants are.

Mr Chorizo is the next Bill Bryson

At least I had Bill Bryson with me. Bill Bryson, apart from having the world’s coolest job (read books, go places, write about it, get paid) has an enviable talent for creating humor out of things that aren’t really funny.

(Kind of like what I’m trying to do here! Sorry for the bad imitation, Billy…)

When I say I had Bryson with me, I mean, of course, his book The Lost Continent. It’s a pretty good read.

The first part, about growing up in Iowa and wishing he was in Europe, is like reading my own life story, without the actual Iowa-living.

And reading about growing up in Des Moines puts the whole growing-up-in-Phoenix thing in perspective.

It sure coulda been worse!

In the next three and a half hours, not much happened except for two semi-noteworthy things:

1. The nuns in front of me met some other nuns (again, one Spanish and one African), and they all went off to another part of the courtyard to talk about whatever nuns talk about. The proper way to iron a habit, the experience of being a middle-aged virgin, whatever.

2. Some of the small children who were there with their parents went absolutely apeshit and started running around, shouting, bumping into things, falling over, crying, jumping up and down, shouting, falling over again, crying some more, etc, all of which reminded me of the importance of using condoms.

Finally, I got inside, and got to stand in another line. And eventually I sat down with a civil servant.

Approach to the innermost cave…

Listen… It pays to be nice to your civil servants.

Just remember, that while you were doing nothing but standing in line for a few hours, they spent the whole time actually having to talk to all the people you only stood in line with. It’s not always fun for them.

Just smile and things will go better.

Anyway, all I really had to do today was turn in a few forms and have my fingerprints taken.

The irony of standing in the prison courtyard for hours is that you only need 5 minutes to do what you have to do.

Once my fingerprints were on file and my papers were stamped and stapled, my civil servant announced that now that I had renewed my work permit, I was free to do any job I wanted within Spanish territory – your first work permit is generally only for a specific industry.

“Does that mean I can be a farmer?”

“Yes, if that’s what you want to do, now you can be a farmer!” she answered, brightly.

“Great,” I said. I really meant it. Spain is a wonderful place to have as your Second Beloved Homeland.

Anyway, I’ll have a new ID card in 40 to 45 days. And just like that, I’m legal for another two years…

So long, Aluche! So long, several hundred immigrant bodies still waiting in line! I’ll see you in 2015…


Gratefully yours,

Mr. Chorizo.

P.S. Update, October 2015. Did I really write this more than two years ago? Since then, I went back again (in May of this year) and damn had it changed. I was actually a bit disappointed to be in and out in less than 20 minutes, and not have the whole experience again. Oh well. I guess a lot of the immigrants have gone home. Makes me wonder what I’m still doing here, 11 years later.

P.P.S. I’ve got some new articles that might be of interest to you. See the one about my experiences with Spanish lawyers, or take a look at working in Spain. There’s a bit of information about the different types of visas in that one.

P.P.P.S. What’s your personal experience with immigration in Spain? Let me know, right here in the comments…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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