Australia and Others are Learning Wrong Immigration Lessons from the U.S.

On April 18, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a multiagency review of the H1B skilled worker visa system. Titled “Buy American and Hire American,” a portion of the order ostensibly aims to pinpoint areas of H1B fraud and abuse, and restructure the H1B visa system to favor only the most skilled and talented foreign nationals. But critics of the Trump Administration are concerned that the order is a thinly veiled attempt to eventually enact anti-immigration legislation. And, given some of the actions taken by other countries around the world, there is growing anxiety that a trend of extreme nationalism is spreading around the globe.

On the same day that President Trump signed this executive order, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was taking steps of his own to promote a more isolationist immigration policy. Mr. Turnbull announced that his country is abolishing the 457 visa. This visa program was established in 1996 and has primarily been used by skilled workers from India, China, and the United Kingdom. Two new visa categories will be taking the place of the 457 visa – a two-year visa for migrant workers and a four-year visa for foreign nationals with a higher education level and skill set. Turnbull also noted that the list of occupations for the two-year visa would be whittled down from its current total of over 650. [See 457 Visas: What Are They and How Many People Have Them? by Uma Patel, ABC News, 19.Apr.2017.]

Turnbull explained during his announcement that the overhaul of Australia’s visa system is intended to stop the “open ended” nature of the skilled worker visa, noting that “the existing 457 visa program is conducted for a period of four years, but essentially it is open ended, and it results, in many cases, in a migration outcome.” His rhetoric at times during the announcement seemed to mirror Trump’s “America First” message that has been a fundamental element of the fledgling administration, praising the new visa system as one that will be “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest … the migration program should only operate in our national interest. This is all about Australia’s interest.” [See Government Abolishing 457 Visas, Malolm Turnbull Says, by Stephanie Anderson, ABC News, 18.Apr.2017.]

Australia’s political insiders have been quick to point out that Turnbull may have been influenced by the mounting popularity of the One Nation political party, which promotes a populist anti-immigration agenda. Penny Wong, a senator in Australia’s Labor Party, told Lateline that Turnbull “backflipped” his stance on immigration after previously expressing support for the 457 visa. “Now magically Malcolm Turnbull’s had a change of heart because I suspect the polls are telling him he’s got a problem when it comes to the lack of local jobs … I for one don’t believe that this is really what Malcom wants to do. I think this is what Malcolm thinks he has to do.”

Whatever Mr. Turnbull’s motivation for overhauling Australia’s visa system, the move seems to follow a disturbing international trend of using immigrants as scapegoats for a nation’s woes. The day after Mr. Trump’s executive order was released and Australia cancelled the 457 visa, New Zealand announced a “Kiwis-first approach to immigration,” which will restrict the number of skilled workers allowed into the country. Meanwhile, France is now a runoff election away from putting Marine Le Pen in power – a woman who has vowed to suspend all immigration in order to make France “more French.” This all points to a troubling trend, as it seems that the current wave of anti-immigration sentiment in the United States is not unique to our corner of the globe. [See New Zealand Restricts Skilled-Worker Visas in ‘Kiwis-First Approach to Immigration,’ by Eleanor Ainge Roy, The Guardian, 18.Apr.2017; and Marine Le Pen Leads Far-Right Fight to Make France ‘More French,’ by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 20.Apr.2017.]

Only time will tell if it is an effective change that benefits the nation, or a costly mistake that deprives Australia of skilled and talented foreign nationals to fill specialized tech jobs.


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