Immigration concerns overblown

Dr Arama Rata is a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, and the Māori spokesperson for MARRC (Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign).

Immigration has skyrocketed in recent years. In a nation faced with inadequate infrastructure, a housing crisis and an impending election, opposition parties have seized the opportunity to make immigration a major election issue. But are our immigration concerns justified, or just another example of growing global xenophobia?  I sought the advice of an immigration expert and here’s what I found out.

Far from our blustery capital, tucked away in a quiet corner of the pristine University of Waikato campus sits a man with a unique set of skills. In a nation gripped by boarder paranoia, one might expect journalists and policy makers alike to be knocking down the door of international immigration expert Professor Jacques Poot at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA). Yet when I approach his open office door, late one afternoon, I find him alone, lost in his work.

I’m a newly appointed researcher at the institute myself and I’ve arrived, unannounced, to glean insight into immigration and its economic impacts for a project I’m working on.  I’ve been making a living at academic institutions for over a decade and have met my fair share of overworked intellectuals, so I’m pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which I’m greeted. And I soon discover the source of this hospitality – Professor Poot’s lifelong love of population research.

“Well, firstly you have to realize that the rates of net migration we’re experiencing are completely unprecedented” he explains. “I was involved in the statistical modelling of immigration back in the 80s, and the rates we see today far exceed even the most extreme projections any population economist would have made at that time”.

Professor Poot begins to describe the economic factors that came together in perfect unison to create this unforeseen spike in net migration (that’s high immigration, low emigration to us lay folk), and as he does so I imagine the whānau trampoline, alive with mokopuna on Christmas day. There’s the global financial crisis from which New Zealand escaped relatively unscathed (Alex, my inventive 9 year old nephew); China’s shrinking demand for natural resources deflating the Australian economy (Lizzie, my 7 year old courageous niece), a boom in the New Zealand construction industry on the back of the Christchurch rebuild and low interest rates (Daniel, my sociable 6 year old nephew); and a burgeoning, upwardly mobile Chinese middle class wanting to travel the world and educate their kids abroad (Katarina, my strong-willed 2 year old niece). When all these largely independent factors converge for a moment they send New Zealand’s economy (Hinekaukia, my unsuspecting 1 year old daughter) shooting skyward, pulling migrants in tow.

I press Professor Poot on the government policies that have surely contributed to the immigration boom. He shrugs this off. “There’s a lot of variability in immigration year on year. Only five years ago New Zealand had negative net migration because of the movements of New Zealanders, which the government can’t control. But if you follow immigration numbers over a longer period you see an underlying trend for modest growth only.” The stats back up Poot’s point. As this nice graph shows, the migration of New Zealanders (who aren’t controlled by migration policies) cuts a similar shape to the migration of foreigners.

net permanent migration

Net migration was driven up largely by economic factors outside of the government’s control and the same factors will no doubt drive it down again in the near future.  In light of this insight, the immigration cuts proposed by opposition parties in the lead up to the 2017 election seem less like an attempt to pick the lowest hanging political fruit, and more like waiting for the neighbour’s feijoas to fall on the right side of the fence, then selling them at a roadside stall for five bucks a bag.

My conversation with the Professor gets me thinking that a kneejerk crackdown on immigration might not just be unhelpful. It may in fact be harmful. I like to think of this as the ‘Turbo Outrun effect’, after the 1980s car racing game. I still recall following my older brother (like a stray dog) to the spacie parlour to try this game for the first time.  Pumped with adrenalin, fists tight around the steering wheel, I tried desperately to stick to the curves of the track. But the slightest miscalculation triggered a series of ever worsening over-corrections, until my car careered out of control into a spectacular crash.

The same could easily occur with immigration.  Remember, only a few years ago net migration was so low we were desperate to attract migrants to our shores. My Turbo Outrun career was salvaged; I was lucky that my big bro was one of the few teenagers in town whose street cred’ could withstand associating with his little sister at the spacie parlour, so he was there to lay a hand on my shoulder and offer some sage advice: Stay calm, try to anticipate the corners, and make subtle adjustments to get back in control.  I can’t help but wonder how secure our immigration future might be in the hands of an informed, composed driver like Jacques Poot. This could have been the case. While I was racing my Ferrari F40, Professor Poot was involved in a body called the New Zealand Planning Council, which among other things advised the government on population trends, until it lost political favour at the end of the 80s.

And so we have politicians steering our immigration future. Instead of calculated, future focused adjustments, they seem intent on whipping the nation into an uninformed, xenophobic frenzy. Labour announced they would reduce net migration by tens of thousands, but failed to reveal how they would achieve this. Perhaps their hesitancy results from their knowledge of what Professor Poot knows (and you and I now know): that immigration numbers are at an all-time high due largely to external economic factors, and that they will almost certainly fall in the near future as they regress to the more modest average rate (particularly if jobs in Australia start to look attractive again). This fall is likely to occur without Labour, or New Zealand First, or any other party having to do a thing.  But, in an election year, ‘Stay the course! Change the Government!’ is a confused and uninspiring campaign slogan if ever I’ve heard one.

Our immigration policies are not perfect. Professor Poot informs me that the greatest rise in immigration has been among temporary workers; Our policy makers did not expect the great number of people wanting to come to New Zealand on a temporary basis, and many migrants face uncertainty in a system that does not guarantee pathways to permanent residency. I now leave the good Professor. He’s off to his country of birth, the Netherlands, where immigration is even more contentious than it is here. It’s been over three months since their general election on March 15, and the Dutch still don’t have a government because the leading parties can’t agree on immigration. In calculating our own course, we require informed, balanced discussion on immigration in the context of fast growing global mobility, while avoiding the deeply divisive, fear based politicking sweeping much of the Western world. We will know we’ve created a successful immigration system when we are able to provide certainty, dignity and respect to migrants, while balancing the needs of New Zealand Citizens, not when net migration hits a magic number.

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