Consulates inundated with inquiries, with 700,000 descendants thought to be entitled to fast-track nationality
Once Spaniards looked across el charco (the pond) for refuge. Now traffic is expected to go the other way after Spain passed a law granting citizenship to the grandchildren of people exiled under the Franco dictatorship.
Lawyers and consulates in central and South America say they have been inundated with inquiries after the passing of the democratic memory law, which seeks “to settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past”. It is estimated that as many as 700,000 people could be eligible for citizenship under the law, which passed the upper house of parliament on 5 October and came into effect on 21 October.
It goes much further than similar legislation in 2007, which offered citizenship to some offspring of Spanish exiles, with about 70,000 Latin Americans becoming Spanish citizens.
According to Mónica Fernández Álvarez, a Madrid-based Argentinian lawyer, the recently passed legislation entitles any descendant of Spanish immigrants born before 1985 – the year Spain changed its nationality law – to citizenship. Previously, children of exiles who had changed or renounced their Spanish citizenship were not entitled to claim it back.
The new law, labelled “the grandchild law”, is based on the principle of ius sanguinis, or bloodlines, said Fernández Álvarez, rather than place of birth.
The law also covers the descendants of women who lost their citizenship by default through marrying non-Spaniards. According to Fernández Álvarez, even Argentinians living illegally in Spain can apply. The process is expected to take no more than a year, compared with three years for citizenship applications based on residence.
Applicants will have to show proof of parentage and must also demonstrate that their ancestors were fleeing political persecution.
The law offers a portmanteau definition of persecution, with victims of Francoism defined as “anyone who suffered physical, moral or psychological damage, economic damage or the loss of fundamental rights”. The citizenship offer closes in October 2024.
Between the end of the civil war in 1939 and the approval of the democratic constitution in 1978, an estimated 2 million Spaniards fled the regime.
The exodus began when nearly 500,000 people escaped across the border to France in the dying days of the civil war. A column hundreds of miles long of terrified civilians, mainly women, children and older people, walked across the Pyrenees in freezing weather and under constant bombardment, abandoning their few possessions en route.
Once in France they faced a hostile reception and thousands were sent to concentration camps, where many died.
Between 1939 and 1942 an estimated 25,000 Spaniards, among them many artists and intellectuals, fled to Mexico, where they were welcomed.
The historian Henry Kamen, in The Disinherited, his history of Spanish exile, wrote: “The emigration of the greater part of the cultural elite between 1936 and 1939 was wholly unprecedented. Taken together with the massive exodus of refugees from the civil war, it represented a truly momentous event in the country’s history.”
Spain has previously tried to make peace with its past, in 2015 offering citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled under the edict of 1492. However, although the 2015 law did not require applicants to be practising Jews or to live in Spain, meeting its requirements was long, complicated and expensive, requiring the applicant to visit Spain, take tests in Spanish language and culture, and prove their Sephardic heritage. They also had to establish or prove a special connection with Spain, and pay a designated notary to certify their documents.
When the offer closed in 2019, it is estimated about 36,000 applications had been accepted of a total 150,000.
The new law offers Latin Americans a way to escape violence and poverty. Already, a steady stream of Argentinians have been arriving in Spain, weary of poor governance, corruption and inflation, which last month was running at 78%. In the past year, a record 33,000 Argentinians have come to Spain and now tens of thousands more are expected.

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