María Sánchez, a retired mental health therapist in Albuquerque, spent the past four decades tracing her Jewish ancestry from Spain. She created a vast genealogical chart going back nearly 1,100 years, which included three ancestors who were tried in the Spanish Inquisition. Her findings even led her to join a synagogue in the 1980s and to become a practicing Jew.
So when Spain’s government said in 2015 that it would grant citizenship to people of Sephardic Jewish descent — a program publicized as reparations for the expulsion of Jews that began in 1492 — Ms. Sánchez applied. She hired an immigration lawyer, obtained a certificate from her synagogue and flew to Spain to present her genealogy chart to a notary.
Then, in May, she received a rejection letter.
“It felt like a punch in the gut,” said Ms. Sánchez, 60, who was told she had not proved that she was a Sephardic Jew. “You kicked my ancestors out, now you’re doing this again.”
Spain’s statistics and interviews with frustrated applicants reveal a wave of more than 3,000 rejections in recent months, raising questions about how serious the country is about its promise of reparations to correct one of the darkest chapters of its history, the Inquisition. Before this year, only one person had been turned down, the government said. Some 34,000 have been accepted.
At least another 17,000 people have received no response at all, according to government statistics. Many of them have waited years and spent thousands of dollars on attorney fees and trips to Spain to file paperwork.
It remains unclear why the wave of rejections has come now. Spain’s government said it was simply trying to clear out a backlog of cases. But lawyers representing applicants say they feel officials have had a change of heart on the program, which formally stopped taking applications in 2019.
For applicants, it has left a sense of bewilderment and betrayal.
Some saw citizenship as a way to make peace with the persecution of their ancestors by forming a link to their ancestral land. Others had more immediate concerns, seeing a Spanish passport as the best hope to escape dire situations in their own countries.
“For Venezuelans, it was a lifeline,” said Marcos Tulio Cabrera, the founder of the Association of Spanish-Venezuelans of Sephardic Origin, whose family of nine has received four rejections this month, with the rest still awaiting a decision. Mr. Cabrera, who lives in Valencia, Venezuela, a city crippled by economic instability and deadly gangs, said he spent nearly $53,000 to file the applications, depleting much of the family’s savings.
The rejections have angered officials in Washington, including Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, Democrat of New Mexico, who said she raised the issue both with the White House and the State Department after receiving complaints from applicants in her district.
“Their refusal is worse than if they didn’t offer citizenship in the first place,” Ms. Fernández said of Spain. “This is an example of how you don’t do reparations.”
In a statement, Spain’s Justice Ministry, which is in charge of the applications, said that it had done its best to follow Spanish law and that it was only natural it would have to turn down many cases.