Faced With Coronavirus, Portugal Is Treating Migrants as Citizens — We Should, Too

Portugal’s center-left government has announced that all migrants with open residency applications will be given regularized status, allowing them full access to health care and social services. Its example shows that our collective response to the coronavirus outbreak has to include everyone — regardless of where they were born.

Agricultural workers from Bud Farms harvest celery for both American and export consumption on March 26, 2020 in Oxnard, California. These agricultural workers are mostly migrant Spanish-speakers. Brent Stirton / Getty

Apart from its beaches, Portugal is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for fado, a national folk-singing genre that translates as “fate.” Fado traditionally retells stories of the aching soul, lost love, longing, and bad fortune. During the dictatorship, when jingoistic rhetoric was daily pumped out by the state’s propaganda offices, fado became the anthem of Portuguese identity. It portrayed the nation as a dignified old empire, small but great — humble before the great Anglophone hegemon, but still vigorous enough to keep half a dozen colonies in Africa and Asia.

While Portugal’s remaining colonies were recognized as independent after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, this idea that we are “small but great” persevered in the minds of many Portuguese people — as well as in the policies of multiple governments. One of the final bastions of this ideology was, undoubtedly, the immigration ministry. Laws on who can and cannot be given Portuguese citizenship have been largely punitive to the migrant communities living in Portugal, often descended from the populations of former colonies.

In this vein, one of the most heated debates in last year’s general election concerned the question of whether citizenship should embrace all children born in Portugal, a principle also known as “jus soli.” This proposal would be controversial even simply on the grounds of breaking with the European Union convention of “jus sanguinis,” according to which citizenship is handed down by descent. But it was especially disputed because it would extend citizenship to the children of millions of black and brown migrants from the former colonies — anathema for the chauvinist Portuguese psyche.

Yet such resistance may well be collapsing. Last Friday’s decision by the Portuguese government to immediately legalize all migrants with ongoing visa and asylum requests was not simply a gesture of solidarity amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It also marked a shift in the country’s legal and political paradigm.

The measure is still temporary — designed to last until July — and it does not apply to all undocumented people. But what it does do is free large numbers of non-European migrants from their limbo, granting them the right to access the national health service, social services, and work. Portugal’s government has begun to recognize that we cannot confront this crisis unless everyone has the treatment they need — as well as the income that allows them to stay at home. And it’s an example other countries should follow.

European Shutdown

The public health care need for such measures may seem compelling. Yet there was nothing inevitable about Portugal’s announcement. In fact, it stands out like a sore thumb in a Europe that has used the pandemic as an excuse to close borders, ramp up xenophobic rhetoric, and shut down democracy. From the Netherlands’ obstinate opposition to European “coronabonds” to Viktor Orbán’s “coronavirus coup” and Boris Johnson’s prioritizing of business interests over citizens’ health, the COVID-19 crisis has shown conservatives’ refusal to treat the stakes of this crisis seriously. They are either allowing the burden of the crisis to fall on working-class and ethnic-minority people, or they are actively using it as a lever to undermine their rights.

In this sense, the bestowing of citizenship rights on thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of migrants in Portugal is a real victory for progressive politics. The general election of 2019 was the first time the far right had reached the national parliament since the revolution forty-five years ago — but today, such forces’ isolationist logic has been marginalized by a bold politics of inclusion. And this also poses a broader question. If Portugal — a country of 11 million people, with a national debt equivalent to 119 percent of its GDP, maligned by the EU’s big powers during the post-2008 financial crisis — can open its arms and its resources to migrants, why can’t stronger economies do the same?

Ultimately, the regularization of these foreign citizens signals that the Portuguese government has realized that even after the peak of this crisis is over, we can’t return to business as usual. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, prime minister António Costa has carried off an often admirable juggling act between acceding to the demands of the European Central Bank and pushing forward with a project of national investment, pumping money into social infrastructure where governments elsewhere have argued for cutbacks.

This has had varying degrees of success, but it has certainly granted Costa the approval of the Portuguese electorate, who gave him a second term in October 2019. His government’s approach to economic management has been social democratic rather than a bold program of socialist reform — but, faced with this crisis, it has recognized the need for a wide-scale response to stave off potentially long-lasting humanitarian and economic damage.

Long-Term Regularization

This helps explain why Portugal announced a lockdown and a state of emergency fairly quickly — seemingly allowing a slower development of case numbers than neighboring Spain. But it is also an apparent motive behind the blanket move to regularize migrants. To ignore the health care needs of tens of thousands of people purely because of their immigration status would leave them at great danger — and also undermine the whole collective response.

Portugal can be credited with realizing early on that its priority had to be the welfare state, its protection from collapse, and its recovery after the coronavirus crisis. Yet this also highlights another dimension of the problem, for recovery will demand bold efforts to bolster state coffers so as to increase public spending and strengthen the welfare state. In a country with a rapidly aging population like Portugal, the most speedy and efficient solution to this problem is to recognize the reality of migration — giving migrants the regular status that allows them to get properly paid work, have the workplace rights open to all Portuguese people, and, indeed, pay in to the public tax take.

Other governments may callously see the coronavirus as a way to release the state from the cost of caring for the elderly and vulnerable. This was, it seemed, one of the British government’s considerations when it pushed a “herd immunity” strategy that took mass deaths for granted. Portugal, conversely, has looked for ways to save the lives and guarantee the livelihoods of all those living there, be they old or young, born on Portuguese soil or otherwise.

The coronavirus crisis has pushed into mainstream consciousness the need to reshape our economic system. And the signs are that Portugal is at the forefront of this transition. Regularizing migrants isn’t just economically useful or a necessary response to coronavirus, it’s the right thing to do. May other countries follow, and build on, Portugal’s example.