A Crackdown On Illegal Immigrants. Interested? Anyone?

Last week Immigration Minister Chris Bowen introduced a bill into parliament. Had we been any other country on the planet this would have been extremely controversial.

Columns would have been published. Talkback callers would have been enraged. Television panels would have pontificated.

But our immigration debate is peculiar. The Migration Amendment (Reform of Employer Sanctions) Bill 2012 will in all likelihood be ignored.

It shouldn’t be. This legislation significantly increases the penalties for employers who hire “illegal workers” and gives a whole range of new inspection and police powers to the Immigration Department to enforce them.

The bill erodes the right to silence, for one, and establishes powerful search warrants with which immigration officers can enter premises to hunt down evidence of illegal workers.

More broadly, the bill puts meat on a new and punitive immigration regime: it is now the legal responsibility of employers to find out whether the people they hire are entitled to work in Australia.

So yes: a crackdown on illegal immigrants! The stuff tabloid dreams are made of.

Or not. In the Australian consciousness, immigration politics is purely about asylum seekers.

By definition, asylum seekers want authorities to find them. Illegal workers do not. They are people who are working in breach of their visa conditions. They may have overstayed their temporary visas, they may be here on tourist visas, or they might be working more hours than their student visas permit.

It’s hard to measure, but we know there are at least 50,000 illegal workers in Australia. A Government report (PDF) in 2010 suggested it could be as many as 100,000.

That figure is a lot more than the few thousand who have sought asylum in Australia by boat.

Why the disconnect?

Immigration politics is not about quantity but visibility. And our borders are uniquely secure. The twentieth century fantasy of full state control over who enters and exits a country has only come close to realisation in Australia.

Those dinky boats may seem like a threat to our “sovereignty”, but they are actually a demonstration of it. Our high-tech Navy picks them up, and our bureaucrats ploddingly process each one in turn. Every migrant interacts with the system at some point. There are no exceptions.

In almost every other country, borders are far too porous to imagine a government could be this diligent.

So in the United States, the United Kingdom and the richest nations in Europe, it is illegal workers who bear the brunt of the political and public attention. We obsess about the people who want to come here. The rest of the world obsesses about those who already are there.

This focus on asylum seekers means we ignore the great issue of our time: the clash between national borders and an increasingly global employment market.

The Government’s new illegal worker bill is evidence that we are not as isolated as we think. One hundred thousand people is not trivial.

But the Immigration Department’s arguments for why we need to crackdown on illegal workers are unfortunate.

First: if we allow illegal workers to work, our immigration controls will be weakened. In other words, immigration restrictions are needed to maintain immigration restrictions. It gets even more circular from there. Illegal workers are a problem because of “costs associated with locating and removing illegal workers”. Read that one again.

Second: illegal workers “deny Australian citizens and permanent residents the opportunity to obtain a job”. It would be nice if the Immigration Department didn’t endorse the claim that foreigners crowd residents out of the employment market, but, well, there you go. Likewise, we might put aside the claim that illegal workers “may not meet … stringent health and character tests”.

One final argument is the most convincing, but perhaps not in the way it is intended: illegal workers are susceptible to exploitation.

This is undoubtedly true. But it is because those workers face the threat of deportation that they are so vulnerable. The stricter we are about visa overstayers, the more we increase the chances that they will be exploited by unscrupulous employers who threaten to call Immigration if they complain.

We know from international experience that an aggressive pursuit of illegal workers and their employers can create as many problems as it tries to solve.

So that this crackdown on illegal workers is likely to sail through unexamined has nothing to do with its desirability. It is, instead, a window into the strangeness of the immigration debate in Australia.