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Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century

David Hall

Late last year, it struck me as obvious that the issue of immigration would catch fire come election time. The kindling was set; the matchbox within reach. So I decided to publish a book on the subject.

Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century brings together ten writers (myself included) on the subject of the borders around Aotearoa New Zealand. It offers perspectives that don’t always get a hearing in our national conversation about immigration – which is a polite way of saying that the book doesn’t treat migrants merely as economic units. Rather, the focus is people – people inside of borders, people outside of borders, and people crossing borders. It is about the way we organise our borders and the way we talk about our borders. And it is about whether these impacts are fair on the lives they affect – whether migrants, residents, citizens or tangata whenua.

In the meantime, our national debate on immigration has already kicked off. So I want to connect a few of the themes from Fair Borders to the politics of immigration today.

The first point is this. Borders are everywhere. We tend to think of New Zealand’s borders as the coastline, or the customs gates at our airports, or our Exclusive Economic Zone. But our national territory – however you define it – is itself riddled with borders. We have a border around our political community, which distinguishes who can vote (citizens, resident visa holders) from those who can’t (international students, temporary workers and visitor visa holders). We have a border around our labour market and our social services, which determines who can and can’t participate, and under what conditions. We have a border between those who claim refugee status and those who can actually prove that their claim is genuine.

And then we have all sorts of informal borders, regulated not by customs official but by public figures and people in everyday conversation. These borders distinguish New Zealanders from non-New Zealanders, white people from non-white, insiders from outsiders. In her essay for Fair Borders, Evelyn Marsters talks of “the territory of my skin”, a blurring of the biological and the geographical which elegantly captures how people place her on account of the colour of her skin.

Which leads to my second point: that language matters. What sounds harmless from inside of borders can be profoundly unsettling when you’re perceived to be on the outside. The Labour Party’s Chinese surnames fiasco is a case in point, the implication being that house buyers with Chinese-sounding surnames were “foreigners”, not New Zealanders. These aren’t merely words: they are a challenge to one’s standing in society.

But my third point is that policy matters too. The proposed changes to the Essential Skills Visa, announced in April by the National Government, demonstrate this. Critics of current immigration levels have plausibly complained that these changes won’t significantly reduce net migration. But what they will affect is the nature of immigration, by entrenching a border between those on low and high wages.

Basically, if you earn less than $48,859 annually, then every three years you will need to leave New Zealand for a one-year stand-down period before you’re allowed to return. This is hugely disruptive for planning one’s life. It will also become harder for families to migrate together, because partners and children will no longer have the same access to partner or family visas. My worry is that these changes may create an underclass of lonely, atomised and vulnerable people who have little loyalty or buy-in to the place they are living in. As MBIE’s discussion document drily remarks, the proposed policies ensure that low-paid migrants “do not become well-settled in New Zealand.” An unsettled life is the intended outcome.

And then there are the incidental outcomes – which brings me to point number four: border policies affect people on both sides of any border. The precariousness outlined above is obviously bad for migrants who work for under $48,859 a year in our restaurants, our farms, our construction sites, our hospitals, our retirement villages and elsewhere. But as Francis Collins describes in his essay for Fair Borders, it is also bad for New Zealand residents and citizens. These sectors will come to rely on a precarious, disempowered and transient workforce, which will affect job quality for New Zealanders too, particularly those employed in the same low-paid sectors.

So – yes – border policy can be unfair, not only for migrants but also for receiving communities. We don’t need to look far to see a powerful example. In 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the ratio of Pākehā to Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand was about one to 40. By 1874, that ratio had flipped to one Māori for every ten Pākehā. This colonial migration occurred in a manner that was conducted was grossly unfair (and worse) for Māori. The British did to Māori what so many Britons implausibly fear has been done to them today: a loss of sovereignty to boatloads of immigrants who staunchly refuse to assimilate.

In other words – my fifth point – fair movement isn’t the same as free movement. There are other considerations we need to attend to. In their essay for Fair Borders, Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata describe the value of manaakitanga, an ethic of care and hospitality toward visitors that comes from kaupapa Māori. The word combines “mana” (power, prestige, authority) with “aki” (reciprocal action), which captures the way that host and guest can empower each other through hospitality. But as Tahu and Arama explain, “there can be no manaakitanga without mana.” If Māori are disempowered and alienated from their land, then they lack the capacity to properly care for their own and for others. Migration policy should not produce outcomes like this. By contrast, manaakitanga would require a well-settled life for both host and guest, an outcome that all parties could agree to.

This brings me to my final point: immigration is far more nuanced than our national conversation admits. Commonly it is treated as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”, but this seriously misdiagnoses the nature of the issue. For a start, we don’t all agree on what, if anything, is problematic about migration. If we aren’t transparently xenophobic, then we’ll at least resist the idea that immigrants themselves are the problem, and assert instead that the problem is the effects of immigration, particularly the effects on housing, infrastructure, employment and community cohesion. Yet each of these are highly complex issues in and of themselves, typically years or decades in the making. If we want to identify the causes of the so-called “effects” of immigration, then we shouldn’t put priority on the most recent arrivals. We should be looking, first and foremost, at the people who once had – and still have – the capacity to make public choices. That means, of course, not them, but us.

There’s much more to say, of course, and some of this is covered by Fair Borders’ other contributors: Kate McMillan on voting rights, Hautahi Kingi on the global economic benefit of migration, Andrew Chen on political language, Nina Hall on climate change displacement, and Murdoch Stephens on the refugee quota. By shining a light on these complexities, we hope that Fair Borders at least makes for a fair conversation about the borders of Aotearoa New Zealand.

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David Hall
About the author

David Hall

David Hall is a political theorist based at The Policy Observatory. He has a strong interest in intergenerational policy issues, including climate change. He recently completed his D.Phil in Politics at the University of Oxford and his research interests including forestry policy, immigration policy and political psychology. He has contributed writing to the New Zealand Listener, the New Zealand Herald, The Spinoff, the BWB Text series (forthcoming), The Journal of Urgent Writing, Auckland Art Gallery’s Reading Room journal, and the Pure Advantage media platform.