Immigration: What’s the problem?

Immigration researcher Dr Louise Humpage says New Zealand politicians need to figure out what problem they're trying to solve before introducing 'solutions' that may backfire.

In my first-year university course, I teach critical thinking using Carol Baachi’s ‘What’s the problem?’ approach.  This highlights that correctly identifying the ‘problem’ is critical to finding effective policy ‘solutions’ to pressing social issues.

I believe New Zealand politicians are having trouble identifying exactly what the problem is when it comes to immigration, resulting in some rather troubling ‘solutions’ that may well backfire and become problems in themselves.

At the end of August, the National government will introduce income thresholds that aim to determine the skill level of migrants here on work visas. In addition, ‘low-skilled’ migrants will have to leave New Zealand for at least a year after three years of working. Their children and family will have to qualify for visas in their own right if they wish to live here.

These policies stem from a broader concern that many migrants are insufficiently skilled, and an assumption that only skilled migrants should be allowed to settle long-term. Skill levels are directly associated with income, although many new migrants struggle to find jobs and incomes commensurate with their skills and qualifications because they are not sufficiently valued in New Zealand.

The length of work visa is also tied to skill level, driven by a view that we don’t want ‘poor quality’, lower-skilled workers getting ‘too settled’ in New Zealand. Yet the government had to make adjustments to their proposed policy when regional employers and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum said they are desperate to attract and keep such workers, who are vital to the success of their industries.

Critics of immigration also often complain that ‘migrants don’t integrate’ enough – but the proposed policy will breed a level of insecurity that will make it difficult for a low skilled worker to settle and contribute to society. And making it difficult for families to live together will disrupt family functioning.

Despite the political wrangling, most of the other main parties offer similar solutions which are focused on reducing the quantity, while increasing the quality, of migrants, even if they have slightly different reasons. New Zealand First wants to ‘protect’ New Zealand jobs and workers, Labour wants to reduce pressure on housing and infrastructure in Auckland and other cities, and the Green Party wants to ensure new migrants contribute to a sustainable economy.

But what if we turned the tables and asked whether the ‘problem’ was not with the migrants but with us? 

Perhaps we get fewer ‘highly-skilled’ migrants than anticipated because New Zealand has such a low wage economy.  The solution might then be to legislate for a living wage or – shock horror – reinvent an industrial bargaining system that provides workers with real power to negotiate wages with employers.

The Labour and Green parties make some attempt to acknowledge low wages, but their policies are hardly radical enough to transform New Zealand into a so-called ‘rock-star’ economy. 

It is also possible that we don’t attract more highly-skilled migrants because they have heard (since this information is readily available on various blog posts) how employers discriminate against overseas qualifications and accents and how the government funds virtually no support to help them resettle.  To be blunt, focusing on immigration policy (in this case, prioritising selection based on tertiary qualifications and work experience) with virtually no focus on resettlement policy is equivalent to inviting someone to stay at your house and then not providing a bed.

Having recently interviewed almost 50 New Zealanders who have returned from living overseas, it is clear that it is not only new migrants that struggle with finding a place to live, schools for children, a reliable health centre and, importantly, secure and fulfilling work.  Only the Green Party seriously considers the issue of resettlement and this is mostly in regard to refugees and/or language training.  ACT and United Future say they are pro-immigration, but provide little detail as to how we might make people feel more welcome.

Finally, what if we turned the tables and asked: why would any skilled migrant in their right mind want to live in a country where there is a wave of anti-immigration public sentiment every time immigration numbers increase? Although surveys tell us that New Zealanders overall believe immigration brings benefits to the country, many are ambivalent, and a minority express xenophobic views about specific types of migrants and are not tolerant of diversity.  Perhaps racism is not as rampant here as in Trump’s America or parts of Europe, but the sentiments are not dissimilar. 

The solution?  Focus not only on immigration and resettlement but also on a broader ethnic relations policy that calms fears about immigration caused by limited local knowledge and appreciation of cultural difference.  For instance, other countries have quotas to encourage citizens to learn an Asian language which ensures local businesses have workers able to tap into Asian markets and encourages greater acceptance of Asian migrants.  In contrast, recent reports suggest fewer New Zealanders are taking Asian languages than five years ago. 

As I tell my students: voters need to work out exactly what problems we want our politicians to resolve – and not just assume the solutions they promote will fix everything.

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