The detailed study of the files has uncovered thousands of applications that do not meet the requirements. Lawyers and some Jewish communities accuse the Government of toughening criteria and anti-Semitism.
A police alert for fraud triggers nationality denials to Sephardim
A police letter sent to the Ministry of Justice at the end of 2018 set off alarm bells. The agents warned of the existence of a criminal organization and possible fraud in the processing of Spanish nationality by descendants of Sephardim. The information came from the Spanish embassy of a Latin American country. The police office radically changed the way applications were studied, pushed officials to look closely at the files and caused a torrent of denials when it was found that, in thousands of them, the requirements of the law were not met. The more than 3,000 demands rejected in recent months have caused a heated controversy. Some Jewish communities and a handful of lawyers accuse the Government of anti-Semitism and of changing the criteria for approving files. The PP has already asked for explanations. Justice and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain deny this and see only the application of greater zeal (previously practically non-existent) in the process.
Since 2015, the descendants of the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula and were forced to leave Spain in 1492 have had a specific law to request Spanish nationality without renouncing theirs. Promoted by the then Minister of Justice of the PP, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the norm sought a “historical reparation.” To obtain a Spanish passport, interested parties, among other things, must prove their origins with a certificate from the Jewish community of their country of birth or residence and prove their link with Spain. The law delegated the compilation and verification of the documentation to the notaries and Justice reserved the final study of the file, the verification of criminal offenses and its approval.
During all these years, practically none of the candidates had problems passing the procedure. As of 2020, 20,908 petitions had been favorably resolved and only one had been rejected, according to data from the Ministry of Justice. But when the police notice activated the alert, Justice sources admit that it was discovered that thousands of candidates were registering petitions without meeting all the requirements, and that, among other things, certificates from Jewish communities from countries with no ties to the applicants had been provided. or that documents were presented before a notary by proxy when the law requires it to be done in person. The files had passed the initial filter of the notaries and the department of the ministry responsible for nationalities, which suffers from a chronic lack of personnel with just over 30 officials, ended up granting the passports by verifying only the criminal records.
After verifying that the procedure could be improved, it was decided, according to the same sources, to prioritize and approve the files without a shadow of a doubt and put aside the questionable ones. A circular was also sent to notaries in October 2020, warning them of the defects detected in the notoriety certificates and urging them to exercise extreme zeal when accepting the documents that were presented. The reinforcement of 100 officials to process these and other nationalities has also made it possible to study each file in more detail. The strategy was revealed this year, when 15,274 more nationalities were granted, but 3,019 were denied.
One of the main reasons for denial has been the presentation of ancestry certificates issued by Jewish communities that have nothing to do with the applicant's place of origin or residence. For years these reports were leaked, not because they were valid, but because the documents were not reviewed with the attention they required, Justice sources explain. “The criteria have not changed and are in the law,” they maintain.
A Jewish community that provided services to thousands of Latin American citizens who aspired to become Spanish frequently appears in the denied files. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico (United States) claims to have issued some 20,000 certificates and has been one of those that has risen up against the Government. He accuses him of changing the rules of the game and imposing new requirements and defends the rigor of his procedures. Sara Koplik, director of the New Mexico Federation's Sephardic heritage program, is one of the rejected applicants and sees “anti-Semitism” in the high volume of denials. “We believe that Justice is not examining the cases carefully and is simply rejecting applicants because they do not want Sephardim to become citizens,” she maintains.
Koplik is not alone and several lawyers and managers, who account for a huge percentage of files presented, accuse the Executive of imposing new criteria and sowing doubts about the work of Jewish communities and notaries. Luis Portero, who participated in the negotiation of the text of the law, is one of these lawyers. He claims to have processed more than 12,000 nationality files and defends that the law allows other means of proof to be provided to certify ancestry, so, unlike what Justice maintains, certificates from other countries other than the applicant would be valid. The lawyer, after seeing how 600 of his clients have been rejected, defends that the Administration has changed its criteria and is demanding new requirements. “The work of Jewish communities around the world is being questioned and the public faith of notaries is being questioned. They are accusing themselves of fraud and it is not true,” he denounces.
With controversy ignited on networks and in the political sphere, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which has universal jurisdiction to prove the ancestry of any applicant wherever they live, has rejected the possibility of talking about anti-Semitism. “The resolutions of the files have at no time been conditioned on political decisions, as some try to imply, but rather on compliance with the law,” says a spokeswoman. “If the files do not meet the requirements of the law, are not well presented or have incorrect documentation, it is normal for them to be denied.” The Federation also recalls that the granting of nationality to Sephardim is not linked to confession but to Jewish-Spanish origin and that there is a majority of non-Jewish people who have obtained their passport.
Another lawyer, Alberto de Lara Bendahan, who has also dedicated years to the processing of Sephardim nationality, considers that the controversy is unfounded and summarizes what happened succinctly: “The procedure was a drain. The judgment of the notary was trusted, who was the one who assessed the suitability of the documentation, and the ministry was laxly approving them. “Suddenly they realized that there were thousands of applications that had ancestry certificates of questionable probative value.” De Lara recalls that the management of all these thousands of files “has meant a fairly lucrative business opportunity for lawyers, advisors, notaries and some entities that were used to support the requests” and that the historical reparation that the law sought did not It was always the main motivation.
In September 2019, the deadline for descendants of Sephardim to apply for nationality ended, although the pandemic gave some leeway in the timing. In total, since the approval of the law, 63,873 requests have been received and 36,182 have already been approved, the bulk between 2020 and 2021. In the drawers and waiting for the documents to go through the notary, there are still some things that need to be resolved with a magnifying glass. 50,000 more applications still in process.
Spain promised nationality to Sephardic Jews. They now feel betrayed
The Spanish government announced in 2015 that it would grant citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition. This summer the rejections began to rain.
María Sánchez, a retired mental health therapist in Albuquerque, has spent the last four decades tracing her Jewish lineage from Spain. She created a vast genealogical scheme that reaches back almost 1,100 years and shows three ancestors who were tried by the Spanish Inquisition. Her discoveries even led her to join a synagogue in the 1980s and become a practicing Jew.
So when the Spanish government said in 2015 that it would grant nationality to people of Jewish lineage — a program billed as reparations for the expulsion of Jews that began in 1492 — Sánchez applied. He hired an immigration lawyer, got a certificate from his synagogue and flew to Spain to present his genealogical chart to a notary.
Luego, en mayo, recibió una carta de rechazo.
“I felt like a punch in the stomach,” said Sánchez, 60, who was told she had not verified that she was a Sephardic Jew. “They kicked out my ancestors, they're not going to do this again.”
Statistics from Spain and interviews with frustrated applicants revealed a wave of more than 3,000 rejected applications in recent months, raising questions about the country's seriousness in fulfilling its promise to repair and correct one of the darkest chapters in its history, the Inquisition.. Before this year, only one person had been rejected and around 34,000 applications were approved, the government said.
At least another 17,000 people have not received a response, according to government data. Many of them have waited for years and spent thousands of dollars in legal fees and trips to Spain to file the paperwork.
It is not clear what is causing this wave of rejections. Spain's government said it was simply trying to catch up on its backlog of cases. But the lawyers representing the applicants say they feel that the authorities have had a change of heart regarding the program, which in 2019 stopped formally receiving applications.
For applicants, there remains a sense of bewilderment and betrayal.
Some saw nationality as a way to make peace with the persecution their ancestors suffered as they formed a bond with their ancestral land. Others had more immediate concerns, seeing in the Spanish passport the hope of escaping difficulties in their own countries.
For Venezuelans it was a lifeline, said Marcos Tulio Cabrera, founder of the Association of Spanish-Venezuelans of Sephardic Origin, and whose family of nine was turned away this month. Cabrera, who lives in Valencia, Venezuela, a city plagued by economic instability and organized crime, said he has spent nearly $53,000 to file the applications, depleting much of the family's savings.
The rejected applications have upset officials in Washington, including Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-New Mexico, who said she had raised the issue with the White House and the State Department after receiving complaints from applicants in her district.
“Their refusal is worse than if they had not offered citizenship in the first place,” Fernandez said, referring to Spain. “It's an example of how not to make repairs.”
In a statement, Spain's Justice Ministry, in charge of reviewing the applications, said it strived to comply with Spanish law and that it was natural that many of the cases had to be rejected.
Those who met the requirements are welcome “back to their country but, in the same way, those who do not meet the requirements of the law will have their application denied as happens with any process.”
The program began in 2015, when the Spanish Parliament unanimously approved a law that would grant citizenship to anyone who could prove just one Jewish ancestor who had been expelled during the Inquisition. The government said applicants did not need to be Jewish and would not be required to renounce their current nationality, but they would be required to prove they could speak Spanish and pass a citizenship test.
“This law says a lot about what we were in the past and what we Spaniards are today and what we want to be in the future, an open, diverse and tolerant Spain,” Rafael Catalá, then Minister of Justice of Spain, said at the time.
Spain was home to some of the most prosperous Jewish communities, which for centuries produced great poets, historians and philosophers. Sephardic Jews, or Sephardic Jews, who descend from communities on the Iberian Peninsula, are one of the two Jewish ethnic divisions in Europe, along with the Ashkenazi, who settled in northern and eastern Europe until their devastation at the hands of the Nazis.
But in 1492, Spain's rulers, encouraged by the Catholic Church, gave the community an ultimatum: convert to Catholicism or leave.
Those who remained were deported to places as far away as the Middle East, the Caribbean, and areas that would become part of the United States. Sephardic Jews, as they became known, clung to their traditions in some places and hid them in others, passing them on to generations who were raised Catholic.
It was a story that Arnulfo Ramírez, professor emeritus of linguistics at Louisiana State University, had suspected his family was a part of. Both his paternal grandfather and his father were circumcised and neither knew why. Some members of the family had an indifferent attitude towards the Catholic Church.
Ramírez traced their surnames to a passenger manifest from a ship of descendants of Spanish Jews who left Seville in 1580. He presented his findings to the Or VeShalom synagogue in Atlanta, which granted him a certificate of his Jewish lineage and which he took to a notary in Spain.
Ramírez thought he had a good chance of obtaining citizenship. In the nineties the professor was named an officer of the Order of Isabel la Católica, a Spanish decoration that includes knights and commanders, for his work with Spanish linguistics.
But he was wrong: in early July, he learned that both he and his daughter, who practices Judaism, had been rejected.
César David Ciriano, an immigration lawyer in Zaragoza, Spain, said that until this year it was almost unprecedented to hear of applications that had been rejected after submitting them to the government.
This was because Spanish notaries, like the one Ramírez turned to, served as a filter by approving applicants' certificates of Judaism, family tree, and other documents before an application was formally submitted. Government officials could not contradict the notary's decision, Ciriano warned.
However, this year officials suddenly began to distrust notary approvals, he said. “This is the first time I have seen illegal behavior like this by the government,” Ciriano said.
The Spanish government said in its statement that it followed the law in nationality decisions.
Sánchez, the New Mexico therapist whose application was rejected in May, has a pending lawsuit to appeal her case to the Spanish government.
He lists names of ancestors such as Bartolomé Romero, a Spaniard of Jewish descent who settled in New Mexico around 1500 and who is a great-great-grandfather nine generations ago. His genealogical pedigree outline, which spans more than 250 pages, reaches back to an ancestor named Ancar III, who died in the year 902.
But she said the Spanish government's refusal made her hesitate.
“I had to sit for a moment and think, ‘Okay, so who am I?’” he said. “Where is my background? But I have a strong Sephardic background. I can say that I am Jewish. This is me".