So, with the budget having dropped onto New Zealand’s collective political conscious (like a wet sack full of moldy vegetables) I think it’s safe to talk about immigration for a while.
Not that I want to talk about it (because as I noted in my post last year I don’t think NZ is ready to discuss it) but because my friend Hardly (who wrote a guest post for me on KP last year) asked (possibly dared) me to.
But I have not only been putting off writing this post for several weeks now I have also re-written this post several times before I just said to hell with it, made a nice cold jellybean*, put on some Neon Indian and decided to confront the writer’s block head on.
So, let’s not write about immigration lets write about why I cannot write about immigration and see if we can’t wring a few insights out of the subject in the process.
So, to start it’s not that this is not a topic I know nothing about, in fact it’s the opposite because apart from five years working for Immigration New Zealand (INZ), heading up various teams there dealing with cases deemed high risk, a decade living and traveling across Asia as well as working in international education (both onshore and off) I have experienced the immigration process from both sides of the line as well across a variety of formats and can not only relate cases, statistics and policy I can also speak from the direct experience of someone who has processed visa applications but also from that of someone who has had to wait in endless lines for one, never quite knowing what the outcome will be.
But if it’s not that then perhaps it’s the sheer complexity of the subject that is making me balk writing about it because when people talk about “immigration” they are usually referring to either one specific aspect of immigration (for example as how it might relate to rising house prices in NZ) or in rather nebulous terms (as in when people start to discuss the “immigration problem”) which lump a rather complex subject under one heading and damn those torpedoes!
Alas it’s not that either because as noted above previous work and life experience means I don’t usually let myself get side-tracked by interesting but related issues or revert back to some ginormous catchall (as the media often does).
Because while it’s tempting to blame the housing hernia on immigration (or immigrants or whatever related factor you want to ascribe) the reality is we have a government which has been aware of the problem and decided to do nothing about it rather address the fact that million dollar houses in Auckland (driven up by a wide variety of factors to which they have decided to do nothing about) might be the real problem.
Add to this that the usual reversion to the ideologically tempting (but ultimately pointless) knee-jerk arguments and positions (such as immigrants stealing jobs), as public discourse, as well as the media, is wont to do can easily be stifled by focusing on the actual issue at hand (again, for example, those insane house prices in Auckland), marshaling some basic facts and seeing that while immigration related aspects might contribute to the problem the afore mentioned knee-jerk reaction (such as saying that its all the fault of “those bloody immigrants” or (my favorite) “I’m not racists but…”) just makes one look like a jerk and does not help the debate one iota.
Then perhaps it’s the binary nature of the meta-argument which sees two equally viable but opposed arguments, those of Globalism vs Nationalism, locking up my synapses by both having positions to which I agree with.
One which posits the inevitable consolidation of smaller political units into larger as the world becomes more and more interconnected against the one thing which restrains and regulates those self-same forces from wrecking wholesale havoc by acting without limits and at speeds too fast for people and cultures to adjust to.
Sadly, again, it’s not too difficult to step back and see the validity of both arguments and to place oneself on one side of the line or other in relation to the forces at hand (for example being a globalist in regards to travel and security issues but a nationalist when it comes to protecting the citizens of your country first over those who would exploit your country) and work through the process rather than just say it’s one or the other.
Finally, is it the statistics of the matter which makes this such a difficult topic? Is it the fact that immigration stats can and are (as any stats can be) often twisted, taken out of context or simply not fully understood, leading to their use as ammunition in whatever argument happens to be cooking up (for example, say it with me this time, the housing crisis in NZ)?
Nope it’s not the numbers because while there are all sorts of stats which can be bandied about (the current flavour of the month is that we have 70,000 plus more arrivalsthan departures) a little further digging in the stats (and I have linked some of the better sources to dig into for your own enlightenment/enjoyment at the bottom) can provide some more solid statistics which, while not absolutes (because they are only numbers after all and immigration, in the end, is a very human topic), to break things down from some sort human tidal wave crashing onto our shores and destroying our nation to more meaningful metrics (such as related info about who these people are, where the come from and why they are coming here) showing that NZ is a nation of immigrants, always has been, and may always be so, and which like a beach, gets caressed by endless waves day after day without eroding.
So why is it that every time I approach a keyboard to try and write this post I end up going off to play games, read a book, listen to music or watch a movie; anything but write about a topic I feel I should be able to blog about?
The answer is sadly the same one which it always is when it comes to topics such as this: politics! Pure bloody politics.
Or more to the point: FukYoo politics in an age when we are on the cusp of one of the most major and dramatic shifts in human history as the politics of the national collide head on with those of the global in a free for all, battle to the death as the structure and organs of the nation state (atrophied and withered as they are) are pitted against the flexing muscle mass of globe that is rapidly becoming more unified than divided.
But if that description was a bit too vague for you then let’s break it down to brass tacks and say that this is the Ragnarok of things like racism, religion and class as they enact themselves though the political vehicle of the nation state in an argument which will see something very new come out of all the chaos and struggle.
And this is not the first time we have been at this point, we were here a few hundred years ago when the industrial revolution was kicking in and nation states were developing out of the decaying remains of feudalism, when the first global war (the Seven Years War) was being fought and new technologies and ways of thinking ( think steam power, the printing press and mass production) were displacing and replacing the old (the shift from the rural to urban) and social, economic and political change was generating such anger (the revolutions of 1848) that those days don’t seem so far removed from the mood of today with all that simmering populist sentiment.
Yet it’s not at these stratospheric heights that immigration in NZ as we know it exists yet these are the very threads which bind the topic into such a congealed mess as issues of employment, tourism, the environment, security, identity, health, human rights and simple nationality (as well as others) are drawn together and which lead to the sheer complexity of the topic often overwhelming people so that they do revert to knee-jerk positions and arguments or losing sight of the forest for the trees (as we focus too much on one tree to the detriment of the forest).
And that is how politics would have it, that is how politicians would have us discuss it; either as some rabid (and often racist) outburst or with an overly detailed focus on one aspect to distract us from all the others so they can make political capital off it.
As anyone who has read this blog (or KP) for any period of time knows, I like stats, I like prying the buggers apart and seeing what can be drawn from them or, failing that, throwing them together and seeing what will stick.
But to do this for this post, I had to go and see what actual data was out there and removed from the kind of data I used to see when I was at INZ, this was from the publicly available data on the internet which is not as complete or comprehensive.
So, what stats there are available for NZ in regards to immigration are limited to things like Stats NZ, sites like Migrationstats.com, and whatever INZ itself has made available (like MBIEs Tourism Data Domain Plan) as well as any articles in NZ media which took the time to generate a bar or line graph (the best being the NZ Heralds Insights by Lincoln Tan and Harkanwal Singh).
And while I could do a whole post on the numbers the following stats stand out the most:
- Asian immigration makes up the bulk of people coming to NZ (both long term and short term)
- There were over 10,000 estimated** over-stayers in NZ for 2016 alone but just over 8000 people were deported, removed or voluntarily departed from NZ for the period 2006 to 2011***
- Fijians had over 120,000 visitor visas issued in the last six years yet the population of Fiji is just a shade over 900,000 people
- 81% of student visas issued are for fee paying students (45% of which are from India and China)
- The most popular occupation for employment conditions for work and residence visas is Tour Guide (at 30,380) followed by Chef (29,934), Retail manager (14,259 and up 10% from before), Café and Restaurant Manager (14,000 plus) and Dairy Farmer (11,000 plus)
- Visitor visas (tourists etc) jumped from 278,000 issued in 2010 to 631,440 issued in 2016
- 70% (34,000) of residency visas issued were under the Business/Skills category in 2016
Exiting stuff, I know but what are we to make of these numbers?
The correct answer is nothing, until we decide which side of the line our argument is likely to stand on each stat (globalist or nationalist) and until we have married the data to various issues (such as the large increase in tourism numbers with the issue of said tourists driving on the roads in NZ) and even then it’s easy to get lost in brainless platitudes (like our PMs amazingly stupid (and unsupported) anecdote about all the unemployed being too drugged out to work (hence why we need all those 11,000 plus dairy farmers).
As someone famous once said, stats are not truth, they just provide the clubs with which to beat one’s opponent, they are the tools to winning an argument**** and not the argument in itself.
STATISTICAL INTERLUDE ENDS
At this point I don’t think I am any closer to explaining why I am unable to write about immigration in NZ and having explored the basic themes I am still very hesitant to rip that juicy little scab off the wound no matter how much its begging for it (and with recent media coverage doing little more than presenting the hacks guide to immigration in NZ rather than actually discussing it the temptation has been down on its hands and knees pleading me).
And what holds me, and possibly others back, is that to enter this debate is that even just sticking one’s little toe into the waters can get one labelled a racist or worse because while race never comes into the making of any immigration decision made by INZ, nationality sure can due to the actions of a particular group or nationality.
Or the converse can apply and a single incident can get blown out of proportion and the actions of one can tar all others of that ilk with the stain of being too liberal, too harsh or just too ignorant and suddenly sweeping measures are being called for.
Go back for a moment and look at those statistics above.
What stands out for you, what catches your eye? Is it the numbers, is it the nationalities or is it the occupations? Or something else?
Or do those things boil away into a steamy vapor which clouds your judgement and leave you seeing nothing but shadowy indistinct figures because in an age where we no longer declare war on entities like nations but on vague and unsubstantial concepts like terror it’s easy for even recognized security experts (who should really know better) to start making calls for things like greater scrutiny of certaingroups or people (even when that level of scrutiny already exists or would not make any applicable difference) and for immigration issues to start becoming a shortcut to fear of anything that is not known or comfortably able to be assimilated.
Because in politics rational is a word you rarely encounter and it seems that in immigration the same can also apply.
So here we are nearly 3000 words in and no closer to getting to the bottom of the issue or even breaching any major layers of the debate having only just laid out some points on which to start building a foundation.
But I will say here that the reason why I approach the debate around this topic with hesitancy is not due to its complexity, or fear of being labelled or for any other of the barriers that can hold others back. No, what is holding me back is something else: empathy.
I have been on both sides of the line making (often difficult) decisions about people which could have life changing consequences for them as well as sitting or standing (sometimes in long lines while in a sweltering hot room full of nervous expectant people), waiting on a decision that could change my life; or experiencing situations, such as having a gun shoved in your face by overly aggressive border guards (of a nation I won’t mention here because I am a nice guy) who were convinced that having improper documentation meant I was “a spy” and ready to drag my ass off to some cell for however long it took to get “the truth” out of me until I was able to pay the US $200 as a special “processing fee”.
On the other hand, I have waved 10 US dollars to the little men in the hats at the immigration station and been whisked through to the “priority” queue while locals who could not afford such a fee watched with mute resentment in a certain country which I used to enjoy visiting for holidays*5.
And empathy here is the key. It has never stopped me from making a hard decision but it mean that any decision I made was made with care and consideration and with as much information as possible and in my time at INZ I declined plenty of visas (one of the side effects of dealing with anything that was high risk) but every single one of those was made with thought and deliberation and with principles like fairness and natural justice (even when I was grinding my teeth with fury at having to do so because an immigration lawyer in NZ was making me) presiding.
And that I think is why this is such a hard topic for me to write a post about and why in the wake of Brexit and Trump such a subject it’s become even harder to bring this up without ending up wrestling with some hideous political python (already stuffed full of a chicken and a village dog*6) which does nothing but twist the debate into knots.
Yet I do have opinions on the immigration debate but remain loath to bring them up here; but since the post that I agreed to write was to contain “My five policy changes to immigration” I will have to front up and present five, in no particular order, changes to the current system as it is in order to affect a better outcome in NZ.
There are no magic bullets here and I will not be providing any major explanation why, as I leave them to the reader to judge them through their own immigration filter until NZ is ready to have this debate for real.
But since I take requests for posts and one of those is to discuss how Peter Thiel got a NZ passport this debate may be starting sooner rather than later, for me at least.
So, with no further ado here they are (in no particular order):
1. No offshore education agents for Student Visa applications (the only visa category in NZ where an unlicensed and offshore party is allowed to operate)
2. No work rights on Student visas (currently they are allowed 20 hours a week)
3. Doubling the number of Immigration compliance officers in NZ (the current numbers are scandalously low and they are mostly directed to dealing with employment cases which are time consuming and difficult to prosecute rather than dealing with quicker and easier cases like simple over-stayers)
4. No million-dollar investor category for visas (ie no getting a visa because you are rich)
5. No dual citizenship (this last one is technically a citizenship/DIA issue but as it’s a flow on and motivator for some of the worst immigration abuses in NZ (some publicly known some not) so I am letting this one slide)
And if you are reading through those and seeing a theme you would be right, there is, and its addressing the worst holes in the current immigration system NZ has (from a top five perspective).
Recent government changes made a start on the matter but it’s the execution of those policies and any special exemptions that might be wrangled in (like how Queenstown basically gets a blanket exemption to having to prove the validity of needing to employ a foreign worker over a kiwi in a town where only the ultra-rich can afford to live) that worry me.
That’s right, it’s not terrorists, or rouge drivers hogging the road (although I now drive the Tekapo to Twizel highway with maximum alertness as tourists in white SUVs are hogging the road and driving dangerously like its Death Race 2000); or housing speculators of any particular nationality.
Have I addressed all the burning “immigration issues” in NZ (like foreign workers or said housing speculators), certainly not because as I have noted these are not really immigration issues they are employment and housing (what do you call a kiwi who owns more than one home?) issues respectively and not really the concern of immigration in NZ.
If we had a living wage and cheaper house prices we would not have those issues and no one would be claiming “they took our jobs!” or “planning to slash immigration numbers by the tens of thousands”.
And it’s now time to end this post as it started with us no closer to being actually able to talk about it but at least having got this off my chest I can now start on the other posts I have planned on topics such as the third installment of my semi-autobiographical series exploring my political views and psyche (called Plumbing the Depths) and more coverage on what is now passing for an election build up in this country (god help us!).
Until then I encourage all readers to try and wrestle with the python as best one can but take the time to consider the position they are truly coming from rather than clamping on some ill-fitting, and pre-made immigration viewpoint which either lionizes the Globalist/Nationalist debate without any real thought or even worse sets up voting for a party which has immigration policies which may not actually benefit you.
So Hardly, you have given me three weeks’ worth of writer’s block and made me drink far more Jellybeans than I intended in the same period while writing what has possibly the hardest post I have ever written, I hope it was worth it.
*-Ouzo and Raspberry cola, yummy!
**-estimated because INZ does not actually know how many people overstay but I can guarantee that those numbers are a conservative estimate
***-the best data I could get from stats NZ
****-I am paraphrasing very badly here and I do not recall exactly who so no speech marks
*5-Not the same country as the one with the armed and hyper tense border guards; I never even considered going back there after that little incident figuring that my next visit might be a lot like Hotel California (I could check in but would never leave)
*6-This was how my last weekend ever in Indonesia ended except with less actual wrestling and more of me shouting “what the f**k is that?” before bolting from my room at the village home-stay near Bandung in Java.