Migrants: how can we make THEM more like US?

In a crisis, the Coalition government thinks that migrants need to jump through higher hoops.

The recently announced changes to the Australian citizenship test and new English language requirements for Australian residents sponsoring overseas partners (and for their sponsored partners) reflects a strong tendency of the Coalition government to suddenly decide that migrants need to “lift their game” when there are some wider challenges facing the community.

The first occasion this tendency showed itself was the introduction in 2007 of a formal computer-based Australian citizenship test. There was not a real crisis at the time, apart from the fact that the coalition felt (rightly) that was about to lose the 2007 election. It thought that introduction a citizenship test with a national television campaign carefully timed to coincide with the lead up to the election might swing them enough extra votes from those people in the community who were uncomfortable with migrant integration. It didn’t. There was no evidence that a formal citizenship test was needed. There still is no evidence that any new citizen is a better citizen because of it.

The advent of ISIS and heightened fears of domestic terrorism led to the government in 2017 proposing a suite of draconian legislative changes to dramatically increase the degree of difficulty for migrants wanting to become full participants in the Australian community as Australian citizens. Thankfully these were not passed by the Parliament. There was never any reason to believe that migrants would have been better citizens if these changes had been made. Many thousands would have been excluded from Australian citizenship for no good reason. The idea that raising barriers to acquisition of citizenship would somehow improve security was completely illusory given that those excluded from citizenship could remain in Australia for the rest of their lives anyway.

It seems that the government is at it again. This time the “crises” that require migrants to jump higher are an odd collection of Covid 19, foreign interference, their lack of English language skills and internet communications technology.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge made these somewhat implausible connections in his 28 August speech to the National Press Club. There did not appear to be any independent Parliamentary or other enquiry that generated his analysis.

The government’s policy “solution” to these crises is to introduce new questions about Australian national values to the Australian citizenship test. Again there is no evidence that anyone magically comprehends new values or acquires them when applying for a visa or doing a citizenship test, but the point is that migrants will have to jump through extra hoops.

There were some good things in Minister Tudge’s speech such as commitment to expanding the government’s community liaison officer network, positive changes to access to availability of English-language training and a research partnership with the Scanlon foundation on multicultural issues. The proof of sincerity will be in the implementation.

The Minister also foreshadowed an increased focus on the take-up of Australian citizenship and rather disingenuously bragged about a record 200,000 citizenship acquisitions in 2019-20. The only reason for this record number was a massive backlog of the government’s own creation that still results in migrants waiting a staggering two years for their citizenship applications to be decided.

The latest twist in setting up new hoops for migrants to jump through is Minister Tudge’s 8 October announcement that, from late 2021, new partner visa applicants and permanent resident sponsors will be required to have functional level English or to demonstrate that they have made “reasonable efforts” to learn English.

There is no doubt that acquisition of reasonable English language ability is a good thing for migrants and should be encouraged. Making opportunities available for English language study and introducing positive incentives is reasonable, but trying to force people gain English language skills by effectively denying them the ability to live together in a marriage is another thing altogether. These are requirements that only apply to migrants and don’t apply to marriage in the community at large. Of course they disproportionately hit non-English-speaking migrants.

The goal of functional English may in fact be too high and unnecessary for many migrants to live successfully in the community depending on their circumstances. One wonders how many proponents of these measures actually speak a language other than English to a functional level or have seriously tried to do so.

Details of the measures have not been announced. This automatically creates huge uncertainty for anyone with a foreign partner from a non-English-speaking background on top of the uncertainty that already exists through the international travel restrictions that go with Covid 19. Families with children will be most affected. If implemented as proposed, it will add to the already overly complex and legally compromised partner visa system with existing long delays before visas are issued for those who fully meet the legal requirements.

Where is the evidence that these measures are needed and will produce the desired result? It is hard to escape the view that these kinds of changes are largely pandering to the views of those who feel uncomfortable with immigration and migrant integration, despite the fact that migration levels have dropped to unprecedented lows.

The bottom line seems to be that random measures that try to force migrants to be more like us will fix the problem – whatever it is. Rather than meeting Minister Tudge’s stated objective of greater social cohesion, they will likely just increase any sense of alienation on the part of non-English speaking migrants.

Peter Hughes PSM is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He worked in a variety of policy and operational roles in the Australian Department of Immigration from 1979 until 2011. He was Deputy Secretary in charge of policy in the period 2007–2011.

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Peter Hughes is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He had a long career in the Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Citizenship, retiring as Deputy Secretary in 2011. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2005 for outstanding public service in the development of policies and programs to increase citizenship, multicultural harmony and the settlement of refugees.

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