EL EJIDO, Spain — Ahmed Mortabit braved the Mediterranean in a rickety dinghy, bobbing north a day and a night before reaching this region where pine meets cactus in southern Spain.
Thick, dusty sheets of plastic shelter farm plots for 60 miles along the coast, broken here and there by hilltops, fertilizer sheds and plastics factories.
Three years later, his hands nicked and scraped from picking peppers, cucumbers and melons in the hothouses that beckon illegal immigrants, Mortabit is close to realizing his dream: a Spanish visa that will unlock the door to the rest of Europe.
"I don't want to return to Morocco humiliated. If I get a visa, it will all be worth it," said Mortabit, 31, a former soldier who hasn't seen his wife and two children for three years.
But the plastic flapping in the wind near the collection of crumbling huts where he lives with other farm workers reminds him of his precarious position.
Mortabit's hope of bringing his family here--or returning home with money to live with them--is in the balance as Spain forges a new immigration policy.
Parliament approved an amnesty for illegal immigrants late last year that authorized visas for anyone able to prove he had arrived before July 1, 1999. At least 80,000 people submitted applications by the July deadline.
The government faces a tough balancing act. It needs immigrants to offset Spain's shrinking population and fuel its economic boom with cheap labor. But it must also deal with chronic unemployment that has left 15% of Spanish workers jobless.
The governing center-right Popular Party, headed by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, is under pressure from conservative organizations and party members in the El Ejido area to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Since winning reelection by a comfortable majority this year, Aznar created the country's first Immigration Department but has not indicated how he envisions future immigration policy.
"We need a growing number of immigrants," Aznar said in his first speech to Parliament. But he warned that policy must be based on Spain's capacity to shelter immigrants.
In May, Aznar traveled to Morocco, where he endorsed the idea of investing in the North African nation's economy as an incentive for potential immigrants to stay home.
In June, Spain's Parliament started debating a new immigration law, but it is not clear whether lawmakers will end up making it easier or tougher for immigrants to come.
Experts estimate Spain will need 12 million immigrants over the next 30 years to keep the population from shrinking below its current level of 39.4 million. Spain has the lowest birth rate in the world at 1.07 children per woman, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain the population.
Twenty-five years ago, Spain had only 165,000 registered immigrants and few illegal residents. Now, it has 750,000 legal immigrants and many more illegal ones, most of whom live along the southern coast and in the main cities.
In recent years, Spain has spent millions trying to keep out unwanted immigrants. It has erected elaborate fences patrolled by soldiers to keep people from crossing into the Spanish African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
Civil Guard officers also patrol areas of high immigrant activity by boat, car and foot.
But El Ejido and the rest of the southern province of Almeria illustrate the potential profits for Spain from letting in cheap, unskilled labor.
Almeria produced 2.6 million tons of vegetables in 1998 and exported 1.4 million tons--more than five times the level of a decade earlier, according to the most recent government figures. The 1999 harvest was believed to be even larger.
The exports, including 285,000 tons of peppers, 275,000 tons of tomatoes and 240,000 tons of cucumbers, earned $921 million and made the region Europe's prime vegetable exporter. Its vegetables are in supermarkets in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada and the United States.
But the conservative farmers of El Ejido, accustomed for generations to a morning brandy, Sunday soccer and the Catholic church, are unsettled by Muslim butcher shops and neighbors who face Mecca to pray.
"Either they're going to have to change their habits or we're going to have to do some major adjusting," said Paco Garcia, a hothouse owner taking a cigarette break after stacking crates of yellow peppers picked by his two Moroccan employees. "We're at home here. I don't see any reason for us to change."
More are coming, mostly arriving in unstable fishing boats and other small craft. Many don't make it. Nearly every week a boatload sinks in the treacherous Straits of Gibraltar. At least 200 have drowned this year alone, including six pregnant women.
Several thousand people have been arrested sailing to the southern coast or to the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory in the Atlantic.