Sephardic Jews rush to apply for Spanish citizenship before deadline ends

The number of applications soared to 50,000 in September, with as many as 5,000 requests received in one day

A Sephardic Jewish woman signs her Spanish nationality certificate at the country’s consulate in Istanbul (Turkey).
A Sephardic Jewish woman signs her Spanish nationality certificate at the country’s consulate in Istanbul (Turkey).ILYA U. TOPPER (EFE)
Miguel González

There has been a flood of applications for Spanish nationality from the Sephardic Jewish community as the period to request citizenship under the Sephardic ancestry law came to a close on Monday. In September, the number of applications soared to 50,000, with up to 5,000 requests received in a single day.

Spain’s Congress passed the law in 2015 to offer historical redress to the descendants of the Jewish community, which was expelled from Spain in 1492. To be awarded citizenship, applicants had to provide certificates and documents proving their origin, appear before a public notary in Spain, pass a Spanish-language examination, and be tested on their knowledge of Spanish politics and culture. From October 1, descendants will no longer be able to apply for Spanish citizenship via this route.

Until August 31 this year, only 60,226 applications had been received, but in just the month of September, there were 50,000. In total, more than 100,000 descendants from over 60 different countries have applied for Spanish citizenship.

The 2015 law was slow to take effect. In the first year, just 2,500 descendants applied compared to the 500,000 expected. But gradually, the number of applications picked up, turning into a deluge as the October 1 deadline approached.

Pedro Garrido, the head of Registries and Notaries, who is responsible for the application of the law in the Justice Ministry, says he would have been in favor of extending the term dictated by the law for a finite period. But this is not possible. The government already postponed the deadline by one year in 2018, and would need to change the law to do so again. This could not happen at the moment given that the Spanish parliament was dissolved when a general election was called for November 10.

A lucrative business for lawyers

Discounting the actual trip to Spain for the notary, the cost of Spanish nationality for a Sephardic Jew is around €500, which covers the notary, the exams and fees. But some law firms are charging as much as €5,000, turning Spanish citizenship for Sephardic Jews into a lucrative business.

The Justice Ministry fears that a number of fake associations could surface hoping to sell certificates authenticating Sephardic origins. Consequently, it warned notaries last February to take care with validating documents that were not from the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain.

Instead, Garrido send out a missive letting potential applicants know that any paperwork sent in before October 1 would be admitted, even if certain documents were lacking. Applicants just need to present a document from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain confirming the application for the certificate of Sephardic origin, and another document from the Cervantes Institute confirming they had signed up for a Spanish language and culture test. The applicants will have a year to hand in any missing paperwork.

Given the current lack of resources, it takes an average of a year to process an application, according to Garrido. Of the 60,000-odd applications submitted before August 31, only 26,290 have reached the Justice Ministry. This is due to the fact that each applicant is required to appear before a notary in Spain, who certifies whether or not they are of Sephardic origin.

Garrido agrees that such a trip involves a sacrifice on behalf of the applicant but he views it as a reasonable condition for obtaining Spanish citizenship. Those with health problems are exempt from making the journey and those aged over 70 are not required to take the test. “There are seniors who will never set foot in Spain; they want nationality for sentimental reasons,” he says.

Getting an EU passport is another motive. The crisis in Venezuela, for example, has boosted applications from that country; 32% of the Sephardic Jews who have already been accepted as Spanish citizens are Venezuelan and a quarter of those whose applications are still being processed.

English version by Heather Galloway

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