Q&A | David Hall on Fair Borders, & migration policy

David Hall is a Senior Researcher at the Auckland University of Technology’s Policy Observatory. Though he primarily focusses on policy quandaries related to forest and land use, he also has a strong interest in migration, and commissioned and edited the recently published collection of essays Fair Borders: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Here David explains his motivations for producing the book to Sarah, along with some of the many complexities surrounding the issues of migration and immigration.

Where did the idea for Fair Borders come from, and how did the book actually come about?
The book was prompted by my experiences of living in England between 2009 and 2015. I saw immigration become this dangerous political talisman. So many of the problems that people faced – rising living costs, availability of affordable housing, reduced social services, underemployment, stagnating wages – were blamed on immigration. As a public issue, it became this source of incredible political energy, which political leaders felt they had to either affirm or exploit.

Ed Miliband was an affirmer. As Labour leader, he said he would “take immigration seriously” and had the phrase “Controls on immigration” chiselled into his ignominious Ed Stone, even printed on Labour-branded coffee mugs. Nigel Farage, however, was an exploiter. He released that notorious “Breaking Point” billboard in the latter stages of the EU referendum. It had a picture of hundreds of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border with the caption: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” Having spent those years in England, I knew how potent these politics were. I wrote a piece for the Spinoff the week before the EU referendum which described how the politics of immigration were steering British voters toward a leave vote.

I’ve been back in Aotearoa for two years now and it seemed fairly obvious to me that the conditions were in place for immigration to become a prominent issue in the upcoming election. Current high levels of net migration are part of that of course, but not the whole story. On the one hand, we are seeing rising levels of real stress and social suffering in parts of New Zealand society. On the other, there has been this paradoxical message from government that things are alright, that GDP is growing, that our deficit is reversing, that we have a rockstar economy.

It’s this disjunct – between people’s experiences of hardship and the dismissive response from political leaders – that creates the conditions for a toxic politics of immigration. It is much easier, much less effortful, to blame immigration than it is to understand and overcome the complex, longstanding causes of infrastructural deficit or weakened social cohesion. For politicians, it’s also an irresistible opportunity to evade the tough trade-offs and decisions that would create enduring solutions, such as large-scale investment into public transport, or giving greater weight to capital gains in our tax system. That’s why, in late 2016, I started pulling the book together, to add some other perspectives into the mix.

“It is much easier to blame immigration than it is to understand and overcome the complex, longstanding causes of infrastructural deficit or weakened social cohesion.”

All this said, I don’t think that the political dynamic in New Zealand is as volatile as it was in the UK or the USA. I also think that our MMP system releases steam in a way that the British and American two-party systems don’t. So there are commonalities, echoes, of global trends, but these invariably play out in locally contingent ways. Asking whether the rise of a Trump is possible in New Zealand, for example, is a misleading question because it obviously isn’t possible – but nationalism, racism and anti-establishment politics will have particular manifestations in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Who are some of the authors and why were they selected?
A combination of intention and chance, really. The intention was to pick up on perspectives that I thought would be neglected by any national conversation on migration. For me, the most important thing was a kaupapa Māori perspective, because this is conspicuously lacking from public debates, or misrepresented whenever it surfaces into the public domain. So I was incredibly fortunate to have Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata’s essay on this, which is such a deft and generous expression of those ideas.

Then it was really a matter of capturing as many other facets of migration as I could: Francis Collins’s very timely research on temporary work visas, Evelyn Marsters’s beautiful description of navigating social borders, Andrew Chen’s ideas about how not to frame migration issues, Hautahi Kingi’s reading of the economics of migration, Kate McMillan’s work on citizenship and political community, and Nina Hall’s critical investigation into the idea of the climate refugee. Finally, while Murdoch Stephens already gets plenty of airtime as a refugee advocate, there’s a philosophical underpinning to his work which isn’t so well known, so I wanted to give him a chance to express those ideas.

But there was a lot of chance involved too. There were a few authors who were keen to contribute but, for various reasons, couldn’t. There were also issues which I wanted to cover – like the points system, family visas, or health requirements for visas – which I either couldn’t find contributors for, or I ran out of space. These are really the hidden realities behind being an editor, but at least it leaves room for a sequel!

Immigration has become a key issue this election season in New Zealand – as it has for governments around the world. What do you think are some of the key misperceptions around immigration, and how can they be addressed?
Putting on my social scientist’s hat, a really basic issue is that immigration is commonly treated as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”. Yet it’s things like housing and job security that drive most anxieties about immigration, so this already confuses matters. But it’s also massively oversimplifying. Our migration policy is made up of scores of different visas and visa streams, each grounded in different obligations, each with different implications for local economies and communities. Blanket approaches – like targets or caps on net migration levels – slide over this complexity and tend to produce unintended, self-sabotaging consequences. This was the story of the target that Theresa May set as Home Secretary in 2010, which never came close to being achieved. The UK’s new fix – leaving the EU – is also bound to be less clear cut.

“Blanket approaches slide over this complexity and tend to produce unintended, self-sabotaging consequences.”

New Zealand parties are mostly focussed on more targetted restrictions. Personally, I think it can be fair and justified to regulate immigration in light of impacts on local communities, but there needs to be a clear line of understanding between the migration restriction and the issue being addressed. For example, if you want to address Auckland’s housing and transport crises by way of immigration policy, which visas should you focus on? Surely you wouldn’t focus on low-skilled work visas and PTE student visas, because these visa holders must be about the least likely to buy cars and houses.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good reasons to better regulate the PTE system, just that housing affordability and traffic congestion aren’t among them. If you really want to influence housing and car traffic through immigration policy, then you should target those migrants who come to New Zealand with enough money or employment prospects to buy houses and cars. But these are precisely the well-heeled, highly-skilled migrants that the major parties say they won’t restrict, indeed say they want to do more to attract.

So this is where the trade-offs really lie, even though this isn’t being well articulated by politicians. But it speaks to the way that “get tough” approaches to immigration aren’t always what they seem – and the risk is that politicians who talk tough will fuel an unrealistic public expectation that these problems can be solved by “turning down the immigration tap”, when actually this won’t result in enduring solutions. And this, in turn, risks exacerbating the public demand to harden borders, because people have been continually advised that migrants are the “cause” of their problems. It’s a vicious circle.

What do you think drives people’s fears around migration, and migrants?
I don’t think most New Zealanders are afraid of migration, or not entirely. I wrote about a UMR survey recently which suggests that about a quarter of people in New Zealand have strongly negative views toward immigration and about a third strongly positive. The remainder – over 40 per cent – have mixed views. They recognise the benefits of migration, or they recognise that migration is a fact of life, but they also have specific worries about the consequences.

And let me be clear; people’s concerns about housing, infrastructure, job insecurity, diminished sense of community, and so on – these are sincere concerns that are perfectly justified. People themselves are the real experts of the troubles they face. The question is how these troubles relate to migration – and often the lines of cause-and-effect are more complex, elusive or illusory than it seems.

Read Evelyn Marsters on migration & the storming of Melilla

One worry I hear a lot these days is that we need to look after our own before we help others. Whānau first. This is a worry that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Personally, I’m not a strong cosmopolitan who thinks that we have equal duties to each and every single person in the world. I think there are special obligations toward those closest to us. I also suspect that our capacity to care authentically for strangers is likely founded on our capacity to care first for family, friends and local communities.

In Fair Borders, Tahu and Arama beautifully sketch out an aligned line of thought from a kaupapa Māori perspective. They say, “there can be no manaakitanga without mana.” In other words, to be good hosts, a community has to preserve the basic capabilities to provide hospitality. If immigration undermines a community’s capacity to care for its own and for others – as it did in Aotearoa in the colonial era – then border restrictions could be fair and defensible.

“Our capacity to care authentically for strangers is likely founded on our capacity to care first for family, friends and local communities.”

But is that really what we’re seeing today? The deterioration of care for one another in New Zealand is part of a much larger story than mere immigration. We need to look at the way we run our economy, our expectations of government, the influence of vested interests from inside and outside of Aotearoa New Zealand. We also need to take into consideration the fact that many recent migrants are deeply involved in community work and social policy, as well as constituting a large part of our care sector workforce to look after our elderly and disabled. In this sense, migrants aren’t a “strain” on communities in any simple sense, because migrants are also constantly contributing to building our communities. So we see here another manifestation of this mythology of immigration as a simple cause, rather than a more complex interaction.

What are your personal thoughts on what a smart and humane approach to migration would look like?
To be honest, I’m much more comfortable working in the opposite direction, focussing on what isn’t smart, on what isn’t humane. This probably sounds hopelessly incrementalist, but when there’s so much mean-spirited and poorly thought through policy out there, it’s not like this leaves us short of work to do.

This is probably an expression of Judith Shklar’s influence on my thinking. She argued that we should put cruelty first when we think about politics – and I think that’s helpful in thinking about borders. It gives us clear guidance on what not to do, which cuts through the complexity of migration. It stops us from going down the path of determining who is or isn’t deserving of hard borders, who we should deter from trying to migrate. For example, detention centres on offshore islands simply cannot pass the cruelty test – and that’s true whether or not a migrant meets the legal definition of a refugee. No one should ever be treated that way.

Migration is just an eternal aspect of human potential. That’s not to say everyone migrates, but that some people always have. If our border policies genuinely result in cruel outcomes for people, then by all means revise our policy to prevent cruelty when it occurs, whether to protect people already inside of borders, or people crossing borders, or even people prevented from crossing at all.

Read Sarah Illingworth on boundaries, & the US border crisis

This is the driving idea behind the “fair borders” concept, that when the consequences of a border are cruel, then people on either side of a border could agree that regulation is justified in such instances. But when it comes to determining what would be smart or humane, I always wonder who gets to determine what’s smart, or who gets to decide who is deserving of humane treatment. Typically, that privilege falls to people on the inside vis-à-vis those on the outside.

What do you perceive to be some benefits associated with freedom of movement? Any negative impacts?
I guess one thing I’m trying to sidestep here by talking about fair movement, rather than free movement, is the liberal assumptions of the latter. I’d rather acknowledge from the outset that freedom of movement can potentially have negative impacts, because acknowledging this makes us more sensitive to when it occurs.

“I always wonder who gets to determine what’s smart, or who gets to decide who is deserving of humane treatment.”

Colonial migration is a relevant example. What the British did to Māori in the mid- to late-nineteenth century was more disruptive than the worst nightmares of Britain’s anti-immigration movement today. Māori were truly demographically overwhelmed by immigrants – from about forty Māori to one Pākehā in 1840 to about ten Pākehā to one Māori by the 1870s. Most British migrants also didn’t expect to assimilate or integrate, which is what migrants are usually expected to do today. On the contrary, Māori culture was largely dismissed, displaced or suppressed.

So for me it’s about being honest about the impacts, whether negative or positive – whether they fall on the inside or the outside of borders. And this will require more than just economic modelling at the national level: it will require listening to people and thinking locally as well as globally.

In a recent interview you said, “If we’re having a collective conversation about racism, it needs to be more than just a conversation conducted by white people”. What are some tangible ways (the mainstream media and academia in particular) can move away from non-diverse conversations about diversity, to conversations that actually lead to real-world change?
There’s lots of different reasons for supporting diversity. We often hear the ethical reasons, but one basic reason is about doing social science well. Values are an essential feature of social science and policy design, so if you don’t have strategies for incorporating value diversity into your analysis, then you run the risk of metholodogical bias.

When it comes to understanding social phenomena like borders, it is critical to include the experiences of people who are negatively affected by borders, and this tends to fall disproportionately on people who aren’t white and who don’t have Anglo-Saxon names. And I’m not only talking about migrants here, I’m also talking about New Zealand citizens and residents who don’t have European ancestry, like New Zealanders with Chinese-sounding surnames, or Polynesian New Zealanders whose connections to the Pacific are affected by migration policy. These are people who understand the effects of migration policy.

So it isn’t to say that white people are fundamentally incompetent, just that we often lack the relevant experiences of being excluded by borders, or being evicted from the inside. Not only geographic borders either, but borders that separate different groups within a society. In a country like New Zealand, which has historically been shaped to support Pākehā interests, white people are on the inside of most boundaries – and that’s substantially true for white migrants as well as white citizens.

It usually isn’t us who are made to feel that we don’t have a standing in the nation of New Zealand. Yet as Andrew Chen describes in his chapter, he is occasionally made to feel this way by virtue of his surname, even though he was born in New Zealand – just like me. So that’s why we need perspectives like his – and others too – because otherwise things will get missed, mistakes will be made, cruelties will go unrecognised and unchecked.

“It isn’t to say that white people are fundamentally incompetent, just that we often lack the relevant experiences of being excluded by borders, or being evicted from the inside.”

We need perspectives from the inside too, of course. Pākehā have obviously had the greater influence over New Zealand’s border policy since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed; so we bear the larger share of responsibility for the consequences of our borders. Pākehā also still have the greater power to influence policy; so it’s important for us to take migration seriously rather than build borders on whims, prejudices and shoddy hypotheses.

But we also need to redistribute power, and especially to give Māori greater influence over the ends and means of migration policy. I support Tahu and Arama’s call for tangata whenua to exercise greater influence on border policy as part of an emboldened tino rangatiratanga, not least because Māori have the most to lose from unfair migration. Decades of social disadvantage mean that higher proportions of Māori are vulnerable to unaffordable housing, job insecurity and so on – and if it were genuinely true that migration were exacerbating these obstacles for Māori, then this ought to be taken seriously.

But again we need to ask: why are many Māori more vulnerable to these issues? Is it due to the upswing in net migration over the last few years, or is it due to colonial migration and its legacy? Is it due to the loss of land, or language, or mana? Thinking about the impacts of borders continually brings us back to thinking about what happens inside of borders – yet to solve the social problems we face today, that’s precisely the self-reflection we need to undertake.

David Hall is a Senior Researcher at The Policy Observatory at AUT. He has a D.Phil in Politics from the University of Oxford. Get your copy of Fair Borders.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.