Marriages of convenience and common-law cohabitation have become a solution for many immigrants living in Spain without legal status. A legislative change of November, 2010 - brought in after a legal challenge in Andalusia over Spain's non-application of a European Union directive - allows couples inscribed on municipal registers to obtain a residency permit that opens the doors to the labor market in Spain and gives the holder right of free passage throughout Europe.
Until that change to the law, only civil or canonical marriages made a person eligible for the card. But the increase of unions of convenience has set alarm bells ringing among Spain's authorities.
The situation has led the Secretariat General of Immigration and Emigration to release an internal note, to which EL PAÍS has had access, stating that regional governments, which are responsible for issuing residency permits, should inform the immigration police of any potentially fraudulent applications.
"In the case that reasonable doubts exist over a suspected abuse of the system (for example if a marriage has been dissolved or annulled or if a person has spent more than six months outside Spanish borders in the course of a year), the Immigration Office will not issue to the partner of a citizen of the European Union a permanent residency card until the duration of residency has been verified and until the established requisites have been proven irrefutably."
Registering as a common-law couple is a simple task: the applicants need only attend a town hall with his or her partner, be able to show that at least one of them is registered in the municipality, that both are unmarried and over 18 and ask to be inscribed on the municipal roll. If one of the two is from outside the EU and does not have legal papers, this act of union is sufficient to be able to apply for a residency permit.
Sometimes, a sworn statement by one half of a couple confirming their single status is enough, police sources say. Some city halls, such as in Madrid, ask for proof that the couple has been living together for at least two years.
The police say that they have detected an "alarming increase" in applications for this type of card and the General Office of Immigration believes that many of the associated unions are fraudulent, although there are no official figures on the phenomenon. There is, though, one instructive piece of data: in 2011 the National Police Corps carried out 61 operations against marriages of convenience and 33 against common-law couples, leading to 305 arrests.
The Secretariat of Immigration's order marks a new procedural approach. At the moment, the police do not intervene in the application process at regional government level but act on investigations centered on dismantling organized groups that deal in the setting up of false marriages and unions.
To marry or co-habit for convenience is an administrative infraction. In order for a crime to exist, other circumstances have to be uncovered during the application to be registered as a couple, such as the use of fake identities or false proof of being single.
In some provinces the situation has become so complicated that protocols to combat this type of fraud have been put in place. In Barcelona, every application for a permanent residency card suspected of being fraudulent is passed to the police. Last year 1,000 interviews of suspect couples were carried out in the province and 80 percent of them were proven to be false. The documents and files keep piling up on chairs, shelves and the floor; so far in 2012 the police in Barcelona have carried out almost half as many interviews as last year.
In order to avoid the situation entirely, some city halls have simply shut their municipal registers to couples. The system was originally put in place to allow homosexual couples to regularize their legal status when they were unable to marry in the eyes of the state, something since remedied by a gay-marriage law. In Catalonia the municipal registers have been closed in Barcelona, Sabadell, Badalona, Ripollet, Vilafrance del Penedés, Salt, Banyoles, Blanes, Castelló d'Empúries and Girona, among others.
In Alcázar de San Juan, Ciudad Real, between January 1 and November 7 last year, 103 applications were received, almost 30 percent of the number in the province as a whole (349). "In 77 percent of the common-law unions one of the partners was without legal papers and non-EU," says an inspector from the Office of Immigration.
Until the legal change was effected, marriages of convenience were the preferred route for an illegal immigrant to obtain papers. However, the religious requisites are far more stringent than the state's. As well as a pre-marriage course and certificate of baptism, a personal interview with the priest is required. If taking the civil path, a current passport is required and an interview with a judge is sometimes employed to detect fraud.