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Despite Spanish downturn, many immigrants stay

After he lost his job in construction three years ago, Edison Sorita used his savings to open this small fruit and vegetable shop in Barcelona.

Javier Bonomi is a lawyer who hosts a call in show in Barcelona that offers legal advice for immigrants to Spain.

Falbis Mendez brings her son to this playground in Barcelona. She's considered returning home to the Dominican Republic, but she doesn't have enough money for airfare.

If you live in Barcelona, and are from South or Central America, then you might listen to BCN Latina. It’s a small radio station that caters to the city’s Latin American population, and three days a week, Javier Bonomi hosts a call-in show that offers legal advice on immigration to Spain.

But lately, Bonomi says, the most common question is how to find a job. Average unemployment in Spain is at 25 percent. For immigrants, that number is nearly 40 percent.

“And the problem is, if they lose their jobs, they lose their documentation,” says Bonomi. “So they go back to being illegal immigrants, which is like going back 10 years when they first arrived here and had nothing.”

They may have come with nothing, but back then, Spain was a land of opportunity for immigrants. Libertad González of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona has studied the flow of immigration into Spain. She says in the decade before the crisis, Spain saw an influx of more than five million immigrants from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East -- all in search of work.

“In 1998, immigrants represented about 2 percent of the working age population,” says González. “And 10 years later, they were more than 15 percent.”

When Spain’s economy soured, and the jobs disappeared, many thought those newcomers would disappear too. For a time, the Spanish government even offered money to immigrants to return home. But, González says, despite Spain’s dire economy, not many took the offer.

“I’m thinking they’re hoping things are going to get better. So most people seem to have stayed,” she says.

After all, she says, many immigrants have families in Spain. Their children go to good Spanish schools. At a playground in Barcelona, a group of boys play basketball on a dry, dirt court.

Falbis Mendez brings her son here every afternoon. She says she's torn between joblessness in Spain, and what could be an even worse situation back home in the Dominican Republic.

“I'm desperate. We think maybe we should return to our country," she says. "But I don’t have a job there either. We don’t even have money for the plane.”

As the economic crisis grows worse, life in Spain gets even harder. This year, the Spanish government cut access to universal healthcare for immigrants who’ve lost their legal status, many of them when they lost their jobs. Some in Spain accuse immigrants of straining public services and taking Spanish jobs.

That doesn’t dissuade Edison Sorita, who runs a small fruit and vegetable store in Barcelona. He and his wife moved here from Ecuador 10 years ago. He worked construction while they saved to buy a house. But when the crisis hit, Sorita lost his job. So he took a gamble and opened this shop, in one of the deepest recessions Spain has ever known.

“Six months ago, I decided to invest the savings I had into this new business because it’s better than nothing,” he says. “It’s very slow. But at least I’m surviving. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Sorita says no matter how bad the situation in Spain gets, they have no plans to go back home.

Javier Bonomi is a lawyer who hosts a call in show in Barcelona that offers legal advice for immigrants to Spain.

Falbis Mendez brings her son to this playground in Barcelona. She's considered returning home to the Dominican Republic, but she doesn't have enough money for airfare.

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