Conflict & Justice

This special Spanish task force chases down immigrants... to help them

Waves of desperate immigrants have been trying to get into Spain this year, by literally storming a border fence in the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

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Thousands have made the effort. Several immigrants have died in controversial clashes with Spain’s Civil Guard.

As Guardsmen on the border take the heat, a little known division within the force continues to work quietly, helping immigrants who’ve already made it in.

They’re called  EDATI.

As a sub-Saharan African immigrant on Spain’s sunshine coast, it’s hard to hide from the EDATI. That’s because most folks down there are white - as in English white. Vacationers. 

Which makes the job of “Agent Juane” easier. She and EDATI agents Pepe and Santiago – they wouldn’t give their last names – spend their days seeking out undocumented immigrants. Spotting them’s a cinch. Talking to them is the hard part. 

Juane spots two young men sitting on a bench. They’re black, and they’re carrying bags of DVDs and beach towels to sell.

“Shall I approach them?” Juane asked. “Maybe they’ll talk to me.”

Usually the immigrants bolt at a cop’s approach, she said, but sometimes she gets lucky, as a woman and dressed in plain clothes. All she needs is 30 seconds to convince them she means no harm.

She introduced herself as the two young men glance around nervously. One of them slips away.

The fellah who stays explained why they’re so skittish.

“If you have a deportation order against you,” he said, “and you have a problem with the police on the street, they’ll pick you up and send you to prison.”  

A good lawyer might get you out. But if you don’t have any money, the man said, you’ll get deported back to your country.

Juane explains she is not there to detain them.

“We’re here for you guys to communicate any problems you might be having,” she said. 

In other words, EDATI’s job is outreach. Informing immigrants of their basic rights, and helping to defend them – even though they don’t have papers.

Slowly the guy relaxes.

If you don’t have a work contract you can’t get residency papers,” he complained. “You get by however you can.”

We’re not supposed to sell stuff here, he said, but if I don’t do it, how will I live?

“I have to pay for rent, utilities and food.”

Juane listens, nods. These small EDATI teams - there are 15 of them on the Mediterranean coast - can’t help immigrants get documents. But they can help those who are being exploited simply because they don’t have them.

Near the posh coastal resort of Marbella, they’re helping Mossein, a 36-year-old Moroccan. Mossein says he worked as a groundskeeper for a wealthy businesswoman here for two years.

She gave him room and board, he says, but not a penny in promised pay. He takes the EDATI trio to the mansion where he used to work, and which his former boss has since sold.

“When I think about it I feel really bad,” he said, standing outside the big wooden entry doors. “I can’t sleep. I’m 36-years-old and my life is totally up in the air because of this woman.”

The EDATI crew photograph the house, take Mossein’s statement, buiding a case against his former boss. Then a former co-worker, also Moroccan, comes by.

“The woman always paid me,” she said.  “But I have working papers.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Agent Santiago, taking her statement too.

When the EDATI agents find the woman, they say, proceedings will begin.

This odd nature of EDATI’s work isn’t lost on these career officers. There’s been some public grumbling within the force.

"We’re risking our lives on Spain’s borders to keep illegals out," they say, "while you guys make life easier for them once they’re in."

But for Agent Pepe, there’s no contradiction. They’re here, he says. Someone has to help them. And, he says, they are actually helpful to the police.

“We can channel information from these immigrants that otherwise we wouldn’t find out about,” he said. “They’re victims but also sometimes witnesses to other crimes.”

If they didn’t give them this chance to talk to them without fear, he said, Spain's Civil Guard here on the coast might not find out a lot of things.

And the immigrants themselves might fall into lives of crime.

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