Hundreds of people protested in downtown Madrid Saturday against a measure that will leave undocumented immigrants without access to free health care, saying the decision by Spain's governing Popular Party amounts to "health apartheid."

The demonstrators cried out against Saturday's enactment of a measure that will strip the more than 150,000 illegal immigrants in Spain of their national health cards.

It was included in a government decree imposing urgent savings measures to safeguard the future of public health care amid a severe financial crisis and an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent.

Some 30 organizations and civil society groups, immigrant and refugee associations and defenders of human rights, grouped as the Network for the Right to Have Rights, rallied in front of Madrid's Gregorio Marañon Hospital.

Those taking part, many of them foreigners living in Spain, chanted slogans like "No human being is illegal" and "Popular Party, Ku Klux Klan," while demanding the resignation of Health Minister Ana Mato.

Joining in the protest were opposition politicians including the Socialist Party's executive secretary for cooperation and immigration, Marisol Perez, who demanded that the administration "correct" what it has done and put and end to this "health apartheid," which she described as "cruel, inhuman and ineffectual."

Yoro, 22, an immigrant from Gambia, spoke in the name of his best friend who is suffering from liver cancer and has no papers, out of fear that he will be left without treatment under the new regulation.

"We'll die if they don't treat us; the government has to correct what it did, it can't leave us to our fate because we have no money to pay for treatment," the young man told Efe.

The health minister annulled Saturday the health cards of all foreigners who pay no contributions to Spain's Social Security and of Spaniards who have never worked and have incomes above 100,000 euros ($125,000) a year.

Foreigners without papers will only be eligible for urgent care in the case of accidents, serious illnesses, or pregnancy, birth and puerperium, except in the case of minors under age 18, who will received the same services as other Spaniards.

From Doctors of the World, spokesman Mario Perez asked the government to repeal the decree because, he said, it violates the right to health care and will collapse the urgent care centers because undocumented immigrants will now have nowhere else to go, thus leading to "costs rather than savings."

No official data exist about people living in Spain without a visa, though comparing the number of foreigners in the National Statistics Institute with those who do not figure in the registry of Spain's Employment Ministry shows 569,946 people "without papers."

Of these, some 153,469 are illegal immigrants from Latin America and other non-European Union countries, the hardest hit by this measure, since they belong to a vulnerable group with little money, while the rest are foreigners of irregular status from other EU countries.

Several medical organizations have launched a conscientious objection campaign declaring they will not obey the decree, to which some 1,800 health professionals have joined in.

At the same time, the regional governments of Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque region, Castilla y Leon, Navarra, Andalusia and Asturias have already announced that they will continue treating the undocumented. EFE