The article examines the development of a migration policy in Spain and the criteria, preferences, interests and pressures that have shaped it, highlighting the role of compassionate feelings, a free-market approach, inexperience and the lack of administrative resources. Faced with the continuous, large-scale, unplanned and unexpected arrival of immigrants since 2000, governments have fluctuated from extraordinary regularisation measures and retreat to control policies. A proactive policy has never been fully implemented and irregularity has been the feature of most immigration. During the years of strong economic growth, immigrants were able to integrate in the labour market while the dominant political culture of permissiveness towards illegality, a relatively positive social attitude towards immigrants and the granting of broad social rights to foreigners irrespective of their legal status, all combined to produce a smooth integration process. However, the model came to an end when the economic crisis, made evident in 2008, caused a substantial increase in unemployment, especially among immigrants, prompting a political and social reaction against new immigration and the hardening of legal and administrative measures.