NZ’s hypocrisy on family reunifications

Peter Dunne argues New Zealanders angry about Trump's family separations policy should look instead at our own racist policy on family reunifications.

Over the last few weeks, people the world over have watched the unfolding humanitarian tragedy on the United States/Mexico border with a rising sense of incredulity and anger. 

How dare they separate parents and children this way, for whatever reason, and how dare the President glibly say some of these families may never be reunited, many people have thundered. And they are right to do so - what is happening on that border is disgraceful, and children should not be used as pawns in a greater game this way. 

The world noted approvingly the opposition of all living former United States first ladies and cringed a little bit at the jacket worn by the current first lady when she visited a detention centre, but forgave her that indiscretion because her heart was in the right place.

'We're not lily white on this'

In New Zealand, all the expected groups and individuals made the right noises of protest - although curiously not the acting Prime Minister on behalf of the Government - with the implicit message that we would not tolerate such discrimination here. Sadly, the reality is somewhat different.

During all the years I was a Member of Parliament, immigration cases consistently accounted for about two-thirds of my individual constituency cases. 

I formed the strong view over those years that there has been a deliberate and basically racist current to our immigration policy, under successive Governments, especially where family reunification issues have been concerned. 

There seems to be a particular institutional bias against people from the Indian subcontinent, the Pacific and Asia. 

Too much about skills

In part, this has been a consequence of the increasing focus over recent years on the skill sets of migrants and the emphasis on ensuring that people coming to our country are capable of making a strong economic contribution, or filling a skills gap. There has consequently been a significant reduction in the focus on humanitarian and family reunification factors, and some specific categories have been dropped altogether.

There is no argument that New Zealand needs to focus on attracting the best migrants, and that it is important for a growing economy like ours to be able to import quality people in the trades and professions to fill gaps in our labour market, but there should also be some heart to our immigration policy.

Far too often, family members, especially from India, Asia and the Pacific, are denied short term visas to come to New Zealand for significant family events like weddings or even funerals on the spurious ground that there is no incentive for them to return home, and that they are therefore potential overstayers, because life is so much better here. 

The breathtaking arrogance of that consistent official assumption has always appalled me. It may well hold in some cases, but in the vast majority of situations people have their own lives, jobs and families to return to, so have no intention to overstay their visas in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most harrowing cases involve elderly parents still living in the home country, yet substantially supported by remittances from their children living in New Zealand. The governing criterion that makes it so difficult to reunite them with their children here is the assumption that because they will not be able to make an economic contribution to New Zealand, they will end up being a burden to the taxpayer, even when their families have given assurances they will support them fully here, just as they are through their remittances now. 

And all the while, there is that unspoken yet heavily implied undertone: "why don't you just go back home and look after them there, if you feel that strongly about them?"

Covers for racism

The overall tenor of the current debate on immigration, no matter how it is dressed up, is racist. Worries about impacts on housing and employment, or social cohesion, are all covers for racism. It is time to call this out. It makes the hypocrisy of condemning the morally repugnant situation on the United States/Mexico border, while turning a blind eye to what is happening here, that much more intolerable.

It is time for a rethink of immigration policy and administrative attitudes on this point. There needs to be a more flexible approach to family reunification policy, especially with regard to short term visits of up to nine months' duration. Subject to the usual fit and proper person test, no-one should be denied the opportunity, as has happened on too many occasions, to attend a close family wedding or funeral in New Zealand. Nor should it be so difficult for young, single people to visit here for a few months, without being looked on as potential overstayers from the day they lodge their visa applications.

Introduce a special Parents' Visa

And it is high time we introduced a special Parents' Visa to allow the resettling of parents of New Zealand permanent residents or citizens, so they can spend their remaining years with their family here.

So while we continue, as we should - although maybe joined by the Government - with our outrage at President Trump's policies, how about we apply some of that outrage to resolving some of the inconsistencies we apply to people seeking to come to our own country?

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