Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Losing the plot on immigration policy

If immigration policy is now about winning domestic political points - to the exclusion of all else - we can expect much more unnecessary human suffering.

Holding the line against travel ban protesters at San Francisco International Airport (Photo: Flickr user Quinn Norton)
Holding the line against travel ban protesters at San Francisco International Airport (Photo: Flickr user Quinn Norton)
Published 6 Feb 2017 

After three decades in the immigration business, I thought I understood how it worked, but now I am convinced I have lost the plot.

In the past, governments that were concerned about security threats from individuals of particular nationalities might have quietly intensified scrutiny of visa applications and security screening in a carefully targeted way, based on intelligence.

When it came to foreign policy, immigration matters were always regarded as a fifth order issue which would not be allowed to interfere with broader strategic and economic interests.

Clearly that's not the way it works any more.

President Trump’s executive order introduced a new way of doing business. It loudly broadcast to the world restrictions on entry to the United States of nationals of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen as well as an indefinite ban on the entry of Syrian refugees.

It is hard to find experts who publicly say that these were the right nationals to target, or that this blunderbuss approach would improve American security. It's easier to find reports of those who say it will increase security risks because of the discriminatory message it sends to the Islamic world. The restrictions have also been opposed by some business leaders and dissenting State Department officials. Implementation has been messy and iterative, indicating that the details of the restrictions were neither well thought out from the beginning or communicated in any detail to the Department of Homeland Security frontline officials.

The only conclusion one can reach is that this executive order is about President Trump showing his domestic constituency he will do something that looks like what he said he would do on the election trail, irrespective of any negative consequences for the broader interests of the US.

It is also hard to fathom why Prime Minister Turnbull would press the question of the arrangement for resettlement in the US of refugees in PNG and Nauru as a first order issue (along with economic, trade and security matters) in his first teleconference with President Trump. It was almost certain to get the relationship off to a bad start.

The only rational explanation for placing so much importance on this is that the Australian government really thinks that if it allows any of the refugees into Australia even temporarily, there will be an unmanageable new flood of maritime asylum seekers, but if they go to the US there won't be. There is no evidence for this.

It's easier to conclude that the reason the government has elevated this to a first-order issue is because it's a prisoner of its own hard line political rhetoric that none of the refugees in the offshore processing centres will come to Australia. The objective of keeping these refugees out of Australia at all costs has become inflated to something well out of proportion to its intrinsic value.

Nevertheless, the arrangement with the Obama administration is a good way out of the problem for the Australian Government and an excellent solution for the refugees in PNG and Nauru. One can only hope that it goes ahead. The refugees have now been there for over three years and getting them to an acceptable place where they can get on with their lives is well overdue.

Both the Australian government and the refugees will be very lucky if this saga has a neat ending. Unlike most previous immigration agreements, the details of this one remain secret. We don't really know precisely what the Obama administration undertook to do. Even if the US begrudgingly goes ahead with the deal, it is hard to envisage that, after 'extreme vetting', all of the offshore refugee population (as well as the people temporarily in Australia for health reasons) will be admitted to the US. We can expect the process to drag on for many months without easy resolution.

Unless the Australian government has some other acceptable destinations waiting in the wings to take some of the refugees, the question of finding a workable formula to bring some of them to Australia or New Zealand will be on the agenda again.

What these developments do tell us is that, if the new world of immigration policy making is just about winning domestic political points to the exclusion of all else, we should expect to see many more public relations disasters and much more unnecessary human suffering.

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