“It is time for parents to teach young people early that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength” – Maya Angelou
Since arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2015, a subtle yet persistent xenophobic undertone has filtered through conversations, interactions, and journalism. I quickly learned that migrants unfairly carry the burden of causing a housing crisis, stealing land and jobs from hardworking ‘real kiwis’, causing road congestion, not doing things the ‘kiwi way’, threatening ‘kiwi’ values, and trashing the environment (though foreign tourists mostly get this blame). I will reframe from writing about how I feel about the term ‘real kiwi’, but I will admit that I cringe every time I read or hear it.
While I have heard people on numerous occasions casually saying “I hate Americans” in public spaces or directly say to me in jest “you stole your house from a real kiwi”, Chinese migrants face a far more discriminatory reality. They are the scapegoat for nearly every problem in Auckland, but especially the housing crisis. In 2015, the Labour Party released “unconfirmed” data that grouped ethnicities based on surnames to show that the number of Chinese descendants that accounted for home sales in Auckland far exceeded the number of Chinese residents or citizens, suggesting that they were causing the housing crisis in the city. Not only was there no transparency of data (let that sink in for a bit), they used a significantly flawed and simplistic method that wasn’t scientific to ‘validate’ their claim. In fact their data was actually based on surnames “sounding Chinese”!?! The worst injustice of this scenario was that the party singled out one ethnicity to take the fall for a problem, shifting the narrative from xenophobic to racist.
During this time, 54% Aucklanders blamed Chinese investors for the rise in house prices and a series of racist cartoons like the one below appeared in the New Zealand Herald.
Responses soon followed.
Xenophobia and the Election
Fast-forward two years later and an election cycle brings this anti-immigration rhetoric front and center with most of the politicians pandering to it. Immigration messages based on fear rather than reality were once reserved for The New Zealand First Party, NZ’s version of ‘Make America Great Again’. However, now they are common in ‘progressive party’ agendas such as the Labour Party, who have already shown that they consider racial profiling fair game.
Jacinda Ardern, the leader of the Labour Party who has a very good shot at becoming the nation’s next Prime Minister, was recently compared by the US media to Donald Trump because of her immigration policy. She of course is offended and confused by this comparison. While she has stopped short of a country specific ban like Trump’s attempt at a Muslim ban, she continues to unfairly blame immigrants for the housing, infrastructure, and employment woes of the country as justification for big immigration reform. This is the same rational Trump uses for a border wall to slow illegal immigration and to end DACA.
So how widespread is xenophobia in the political debate? Nearly all of the parties are suggesting plans to halt, slash, or regionalize immigrants, as a means to solve a multitude of problems that the nation faces. Many of these policies have been criticized for being based on “hysterical hyperbole, rather than facts”, as Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy suggests. Even the Green Party, who consider themselves the most migrant friendly party in Parliament, got swept up in the simplistic and inaccurate data correlation blame game. However, they have recognized that they were worsening the public debate by contributing to xenophobia and have since apologized for the way they announced their immigration policy. James Shaw, the co-leader of the Green Party made a public statement acknowledging that migrants were not to blame for high housing prices, hospital waitlists, degraded rivers and school children going hungry, but rather that the government’s failure to plan for infrastructure and services was.
Sadly, by unfairly making immigrants the scapegoat for society’s ills, the country is missing an opportunity to discuss broader political and economic issues, such as funding tools and investment in physical and social infrastructure, workplace controls and minimum wage setting, and leveling the playing field for investment property tax incentives, just to name a few. It seems far too challenging for politicians to have these conversations and much easier to blame immigrants. This is happening in political discussions all over the world today. If we don’t want Aotearoa New Zealand to see anti-immigration policies similar to those of the Trump era in the US or anti-foreign referendums such as Brexit in the UK, it is important that we call out prejudice in our leaders and within our communities when we hear it.
It is valid that immigration conversations need to happen here, it is just the way they are unfolding that is disturbing. I can say that as a migrant these conversations are deeply hurtful and makes me feel unwelcome in a place that prides itself in friendliness, hospitableness, and inclusion. I fully understand that I come from the country with a president leading the xenophobic (and racist) revolution. I know this type of rhetoric all too well and I recognize it here.
Statistical Comparisons Between Aotearoa New Zealand and the US and UK
You might be surprised to know that when comparing the two nations, the US is actually more immigrant positive, but also more immigrant negative (it is no secret that it is a highly divided nation). Nearly 1.5x more people (50% vs 31%) see the value of and support migration in the US compared to Aotearoa New Zealand. However, there is a much larger group of people in the US that view immigration negatively, 34% US vs 25% NZ. Below is a breakdown of negative to positive views of citizens and migrants on immigration here.
It is worth noting that these numbers do not differentiate between illegal and legal immigration, which certainly changes the narrative in the US (illegal immigration is of most concern). I am not sure what effect (if any) it would have on statistics here as immigration discussions focus on the number of legal migrants. It should also be noted that the survey methods used for each country were not identical so variations can be expected depending on how questions were phrased.
When comparing the negative:conflicted:positive breakdown of citizens in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2015 to the UK in 2014 (pre-Brexit), you see similar albeit slight lean positive here, 25:44:31 (NZ) vs 25:50:25 (UK). It is uncertain how these numbers have changed due to the rise in immigration politics over the last two years.
Shifting the immigration narrative from threat to value
Honestly, I am not really interested in some bizarre comparison about which nation is more or less xenophobic, it doesn’t help solve anything. I simply included these statistics because 1) when I speak up on this issue people usually defend this rhetoric by saying, well at least we aren’t the US or the UK (again, I am fully aware of the US situation and I am NOT defending it…that isn’t the point I am trying to make) and 2) it is important to note that xenophobia isn’t always angry and mean, it can be subtle, mild and at times friendly, which is generally how it is being expressed here.
I am mostly interested in trying to help change the narrative and share the value of immigration and the diversity that migrants contribute to. I think it is first important to debunk many of the myths about immigration with a discussion that will help highlight the value. I shall use the term ‘NZ born’ to refer to anyone born in Aotearoa New Zealand to distinguish them from a immigrant.
Debunking Some Myths
Myth #1: Immigrants steal ‘our’ jobs and immigrants drive down wages
Discussion: Immigrants do not steal jobs. Employment is not a zero sum game with a fixed number of jobs that immigrants and NZ born compete for. The model is quite simple, when you add more people into an economy, you add more jobs. It is easy to see when someone loses a job to an immigrant, but it is far less apparent to see the jobs created by immigrants or the demands of immigrants. Many people migrate to start new businesses, which employ NZ born. An influx of migrants also demand more services, which in turn create more start up business and employment opportunities. Finally, migrants also often fill jobs that are in need of their particular skill set or they bring an entirely new type of job all together. In this situation, they are not stealing a job from a NZ born, but often complimenting their skills to bring value to everyone. This relocation process allows everyone to be employed. In reality, the New Zealand Immigration Service confirmed that high immigration numbers have not resulted in fewer jobs for people already here.
Now what about wage? A simple supply and demand model would suggest that when you increase the supply of workers from S to S’ in the diagram below, wages decrease (w0 to w1).
However, there isn’t only one homogeneous labor market. We have to again return to the fact that jobs that immigrants and NZ born perform are often interdependent, since the two can differ in skill and type of occupation. This often increases productivity in all workers which often increases wages.
It is also not simply a shift in the supply of labor, but demand as well. As previously mentioned, immigrants demand goods. More people in the economy, means more demand. The effect on wage depends on the magnitude of increase in supply vs the magnitude of the increase in demand. In the diagram below, an equal shift in supply (S1 to S2) and demand (D1 to D2) has no effect on wage (W1). Globally, the overall effect of immigration on wages (positive or negative) in the country where migrants are arriving is typically measured around zero. Yip….you read that right, zero!
One of the most cited examples to highlight this concept, is when large numbers of women entered the labor force in the 1940’s in the US. This had a tremendously positive effect on the US economy. Men didn’t suddenly find themselves pushed out of the workforce. In fact, women helped create more opportunities for men. Women started businesses that employed men, women took the money they earned and spent it on products made by men, and women paid taxes which helped fund infrastructure.
From an innovation and economic growth perspective, migrants add a great deal of value to Aotearoa New Zealand. Currently, up to 60% of total immigrants here are skilled migrants. These migrants bring new skills, new businesses, new investments, and new connections within key export markets. They also help improve the nation’s cultural competency or ability to appreciate, understand and interact with persons of cultural and belief systems other than one’s own. This is not only highly valuable in the world trade market, but also promotes productivity and quality of businesses and services here, because it helps people communicate more effectively, share new ideas, and be more tolerant of differences.
Myth #2: Immigrants are causing the housing crisis and are taking ‘our’ homes
Discussion: Yes, there is a strong correlation between homes prices and an increase in immigration, but it is important to remember the statistics 101 rule, correlation doesn’t imply causation. Translation – an increase of migration does not cause home prices to increase, they are simply associated with one another. Both events are influenced by a third factor, the business cycle, which adds a complexity with many moving parts to the housing conundrum.
The business cycle refers to fluctuations in economic activity, defined by periods of expansions and contractions, which also influences interest rates set by the banks. Interest rates for home loans in Aotearoa New Zealand hit a 50 year low in 2016, making mortgages more affordable. This allowed more people to secure a mortgage and made investment property ownership (along with absence of capital gains tax) highly attractive, flooding the market with prospective home buyers. Then you add in a housing stock that is still recovering from stagnation during the GFC, internal rural to urban migration, a return of NZ born from overseas and a sharp decline in NZ born leaving for Australia and you are left with a wicked problem.
A wicked problem is a problem with complex interdependencies, that is difficult or impossible to solve because the interdependences are often contradictory and changing. In an effort to solve one element often creates new problems. While the diagram below illustrating the wicked problem of housing affordability is specific to Pittsburgh (a city in the US), it highlights the ‘wickedness’ of the housing market that is not unlike the situation in Aotearoa New Zealand or anywhere else in the developed world.
I could go on and on about a host of other contributors as well, however the point that I am trying to make is that migrants, although contributing, are not causing the housing crisis. While I certainly would never suggest migrants entering the country will solve the housing crisis, they do contribute to taxes for infrastructure improvements and are part of the labor force that helps build new infrastructure.
There is no silver bullet fix to make housing more accessible and affordable. However, simply removing the migrant from the equation will not only not solve the problem, but has the potential to lead to new and unexpected problems. So why are politicians using immigration reform as a means for solving the housing issues?
Myth #3 Immigrants threaten ‘kiwi’ values and way of life
Discussion: The New Zealand Initiative, an independent public policy think tank generated a report in 2017 that revealed that migrants generally integrate well into society here as opposed to living as an ethnic group distinct from it. The study looked at socioeconomic values that include, ethnic clustering coupled with high concentrations of unemployment and welfare dependency, low levels of education attainment and negative attitudes towards New Zealanders and society at large. The research revealed that migrants overall do not tend to live in ethnic clusters and when ethnicity was concentrated it correlated with lower levels of unemployment. Migrants are 7.8% less likely to claim a benefit and children of migrants attained higher rates of education than NZ born. Migrants also felt they belonged within society here, 87% in comparison to 98% NZ born. Migrants are not only integrating into society, but they are succeeding as well.
Generally people migrate for reasons such as job opportunities, services, politics (sometimes government oppression), and retirement. They don’t typically migrate to impose their values on their new nation. I fully understand that some migrants may have far different values and may need support to integrate into a society. I also fully support a nation’s right to protect its core democratic values such as freedom of association and speech, tolerance, and equality before the law. However, I should note that values along with many others are protected by laws and regulations with serious repercussions for those not adhering to them. There is no evidence that these values are under any threat from immigration today. So why are people fearful they will be tomorrow?
The reality is, many people do feel threatened by immigration. In 2011, 44.4% agreed with the statement “Immigration threatens the uniqueness of our culture and society.” A 2017 Massey/Stuff survey revealed that a majority of survey respondents thought migrants needed to “learn to do things the Kiwi way” and only 14% thought immigrants should bring their way of life to New Zealand.
These statements don’t appear to reference values, but rather a protection of culture or ways of doing things. I would argue that contact with people of different cultures does not lead to a loss of culture. Culture is about decision and choice and most people within a culture will take ideas, customs, beliefs, etc. they find appealing and helpful from foreign cultures and reject those they don’t. This flips the narrative to one of cultural gain rather than cultural loss. It is also important to note that culture isn’t static, but dynamic and changes overtime. So unless you are willing to completely isolate yourself from other cultures, change is inevitable. Lastly, Aotearoa New Zealand prides itself as a place of cultural diversity. By asking migrants to conform to a standard or norm suppresses diversity and makes the nation at risk of losing cultural diversity.
Value of migrants beyond economics
While there are some positive conversations about immigration, they generally focus on economic benefits, hinging a migrant’s worth on their contribution to the nation’s wealth. What about societal gains of immigration? Also, if we remove economics and bureaucracy, is there a moral argument for migration?
Contribution to social fabric
Immigration highly contributes to diversity, which enriches and strengthens our social fabric, enabling society to thrive. Diversity helps us better respect others that are different from us, it enables us to be more sensitive and tolerant of these differences, and it emphasizes contributions of different groups of people. As previously mentioned, migrants improve cultural competency or our ability to appreciate, understand and interact with persons of cultural and belief systems other than one’s own. Cultural competency is grounded in principles of trust, respect for diversity, equity, fairness, and social justice. By improving our cultural competency, we can more effectively address issues of injustice, racism, exclusion, and inequity.
Migrants also bring variation in perspectives that can lead to new ideas and solutions that help address a wide range of societal needs. Our relationship with migrants allow us to not only draw from knowledge here, but from views and knowledge from all over the world. This in turn helps us be better prepared to deal with uncertainty and wicked problems we face today and in the future.
It is odd to me that we often consider monocultures or a lack of diversity as something negative in ecological systems, yet can feel threatened by diversity in social systems. Learning from and building friendships with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities is a beautiful thing. It enriches our lives in ways we could have never imagined and helps us be better human beings. Immigration is simply a means for realizing diversity.
It is my understanding that Aotearoa New Zealand feels a moral responsibility to accept refugees as a humanitarian obligation and responsibility. But what about acceptance of people who aren’t forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster? Are migration and equality intertwined and is migration a basic human right? You are probably thinking I am reaching with this one and let me just first say that I am looking at this purely from a philosophical standpoint, as in a “perfect world” kind of way where I don’t have to deal with the reality of a society defined by borders.
We have evolved to say that we can’t discriminate about race, gender, sexual preference, and religion, but we are perfectly ok with controlled discrimination based on a person’s place of birth. This suggests that there is a moral case for open borders. We can also recognize that nearly all of us are immigrants, with our ancestors originating from the same spot in Africa, the birthplace of human civilization. One quarter of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population was born somewhere else and the rest descended from people that arrived by waka, ship, or airplane from somewhere else. Once we acknowledge and accept this, we might begin to question our right to forbid migration. Maybe as we slowly release this power that is grounded in hypocrisy, we can truly build a society on the ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. Until then, have a listen to the podcast below for more on this.
The Reality for Immigrants
The reality is, it is actually hard to come here. You generally have to be young, have good health, a clean criminal record, hold skills that are needed, and speak english. Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the lowest population densities. With only 15 people per square kilometer, less than half of the OECD country average and higher than only Australia, Iceland, Canada, and Norway. As the world population continues to grow at an unprecedented pace, it seems there is plenty of space for people here. I understand that most people will look unfavorably to this statement, because YOU don’t want the nation to grow. I am simply presenting the moral argument.
Freedom and the value of diversity that immigration has brought to my own country is what I appreciate the most about my life in the US. John F. Kennedy once said, “everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life” and I couldn’t agree more. It makes me sad and angry to see an administration in power that threatens this and I don’t want to see the same happen here. So lets change the narrative, lets shut down the xenophobic dialogue, lets demand better of our politicians, our journalists, and our neighbors. Let’s talk about how to ensure that Aotearoa New Zealand is a healthy and happy society without blaming people that weren’t born here.
I know that the following commercial is from my country of origin and it is an advertisement for Coca-Cola…try to shut out both of those things and simply see that “together is beautiful.”