When did immigration become a bad word?

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with Rev. Clay Nelson

When did immigration become a bad word?
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Clay Nelson © 19 May 2019

From NZ History Online

A meeting in Dunedin presided over by the mayor unanimously called for a ban on further Chinese migrants.

New Zealand in the 19th century strived to be a ‘Britain of the South Seas’ and Pākehā saw non-white migrants as undesirable. The discovery of gold in California, Canada, Australia and later New Zealand attracted many Chinese men wanting to make their fortunes before returning home.

In the 1860s the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce sought to replace European miners who had left Otago for the new West Coast fields. Chinese were seen as hard-working and law-abiding, and they were also willing to rework abandoned claims. The first 12 men arrived from Victoria in 1866; 2000 more had followed by late 1869. Chinese women seldom migrated to New Zealand. In 1881 there were only nine women to 4995 men, raising fears that white women were at risk from Chinese men.

As work on the goldfields became harder to find, anti-Chinese prejudice resurfaced. Some spoke of a conspiracy to overrun the colony with ‘Coolies’ who were ‘ignorant, slavish, and treacherous’. Canada and Australia had imposed entry taxes on Chinese immigrants and New Zealand followed suit via the Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881. A poll tax of £10 (equivalent to $1720 today) was introduced and ships arriving in New Zealand were restricted to one Chinese passenger per 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 this ratio was reduced to one passenger per 200 tons of cargo, and the poll tax was raised to £100 ($19,200). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries organisations such as the Anti-Chinese Association, the Anti-Chinese League, the Anti-Asiatic League and the White New Zealand League emerged to oppose Chinese immigration.

From 1907 all arriving Chinese were required to sit an English reading test, and from 1908 Chinese who wished to leave the country temporarily needed re-entry permits, which were thumb-printed. Permanent residency was denied from 1926 and Chinese were not eligible for the old-age pension until 1936. Although other changes made it largely irrelevant from the 1920s, the poll tax legislation was not repealed until 1944. In 2002 the New Zealand government officially apologised to the Chinese community for the suffering caused by the poll tax.

‘Anti-Chinese hysteria in Dunedin’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/anti-chinese-hysteria-dunedin, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 26-Feb-2019

Immigration had become a bad word long before our treatment of Chinese immigrants. I share this story because it captures attitudes that probably go back to beginning of time. There are certainly plenty of biblical instances. The story of the tower of Babel tells of a time when everyone spoke a common language, allowing them to cooperate in building a tower to reach the heavens. God was not pleased. He disrupted the construction by giving the workers different languages so they could not finish the construction and its peoples were dispersed around the earth.

It is an ancient myth to explain our tribal nature protected by the individual languages that express our culture. Rachel and I laugh at the fact we are separated by a common language. Even after fourteen years in NZ she can still use words or phrases that leave me scratching my head. The only reason my misunderstandings don’t result in conflict, is she speaks American, having grown up with my tribe’s TV shows, movies, and literature.

Tribalism was an evolutionary necessity. Human beings are a social animal not designed to live alone. Hunting a mammoth on your own is not conducive to a long life. While there were benefits of living in a tribe, it created a mindset where only those of my tribe were to be trusted and valued. Distrust of those outside our social circle at that time was probably when immigration was first considered a bad word.

It is easier for us as humans to fear the outsider as a threat to our identity than to find ways to assimilate them to be one of us. This seems to be at the root of modern resistance to immigration. The argument around immigration seems to hinge on whether or not to view impeding immigration as racist or simply as a matter of protecting ethnocentric interests.

Trump, Brexit and the European populist right herald a new cleavage between globalists and nationalists, in which immigration is a defining issue. What’s more, new survey data suggests this hinges on a fundamental difference of opinion in western societies between highly educated liberals, who consider the ethno-communal desire to reduce immigration racist, and conservatives, who don’t. This matters greatly because to be racist is, for most people, to be immoral — transgressing the social norms which define good and evil.

New data from an 18-country Ipsos-Mori survey indicates that people’s view of whether immigration should be higher or lower is strongly linked to whether they think it’s racist for a member of the ethnic majority to want less immigration to help maintain their group’s population share.

This relationship between anti-racist norms and desired immigration levels holds in virtually all countries but is especially pronounced in Europe and its offshoots. Essentially, this new “culture war” revolves around whether tribal desires for less immigration represent racism or a legitimate — if illiberal — form of group attachment.

Why is this important? Hostility to immigration is recognised as the most important predictor of support for populist right parties, like the Front National or leaders such as Donald Trump. Typically, those who study these phenomena try to explain what’s making people upset: is the culprit economic inequality, pressure on services, cultural change or a mistrust of established politicians?

But perhaps one of the great drivers of the new nationalism that sent Trump to the White House (and drove the United Kingdom to vote to leave the EU) has been the perception of invisibility. The resentful citizens fearing the loss of their middle-class status point an accusatory finger upward to the elites, who they believe do not see them, but also downward toward the poor, who they feel are unfairly favoured. Economic distress is often perceived by individuals more as a loss of identity than as a loss of resources. Hard work should confer dignity on an individual. But many white working-class Americans feel that their dignity is not recognized and that the government gives undue advantages to people who are not willing to play by the rules.

This link between income and status helps explain why nationalist or religiously conservative appeals have proved more effective than traditional left-wing ones based on economic class. Nationalists tell the disaffected that they have always been core members of a great nation and that foreigners, immigrants, and elites have been conspiring to hold them down. “Your country is no longer your own,” they say, “and you are not respected in your own land.” The religious right tells a similar story: “You are a member of a great community of believers that has been betrayed by nonbelievers; this betrayal has led to your impoverishment and is a crime against God.”

The prevalence of such narratives is why immigration has become such a contentious issue in so many countries. Like trade, immigration boosts overall GDP, but it does not benefit all groups within a society. Almost always, ethnic majorities view it as a threat to their cultural identity, especially when cross-border flows of people are as massive as they have been in recent decades. 

So far the anti-immigrant attitudes seen in Europe and the US have not been as prevalent in New Zealand. Our election of a centre-left government that supports increasing refugee quotas is counter to what we see around the world. This reflects a 2018 survey that found most New Zealanders want to keep accepting refugees, with 62% disagreeing with the statement “We must close our borders to refugees entirely – we can’t accept any at this time”.  However, this is a decrease of 5 points from 2017, with slightly more people now feeling we should close our borders (29%, up from 26% in 2016).

At 56%, slightly more New Zealanders feel confident that most refugees who come to New Zealand will successfully integrate into New Zealand, compared with 53% in 2016. In contrast, a third disagreed, indicating that a sizeable minority still question how well refugees can assimilate.

55% feel that immigration makes New Zealand a more interesting place to live, up from 49% in 2017.

51% feel that immigration is good for the New Zealand economy, up from 47% in 2017. 

Additionally, a similar proportion of respondents both agreed and disagreed with the statement, “There are terrorists pretending to be refugees who will enter New Zealand to cause violence and destruction” (40% combined disagree vs. 41% combined agree in 2018). 

While these polling numbers are encouraging of our being a welcoming country for immigrants, they are not overwhelming. There is still fear about immigrants’ failure to assimilate and adopt the kiwi way of life and a belief that some are even hostile to it. What I consider the Trump virus could spread to here and turn these numbers around. I think we need to vaccinate ourselves by spending more time listening to those who have immigrated here. This requires going outside our comfort zone to hear stories like Fatima Junaid’s. She moved to New Zealand from Peshawar, Pakistan with her husband and daughter. She came here to complete her doctorate at Massey University on a student visa. 

Although not an immigrant, she said she intends to apply for permanent residency once her doctorate is complete.

Her experience of coming to New Zealand was warm and positive, particularly when her father was killed by a bomb in Pakistan five months after she arrived.

People were kind, considerate and accommodating. “My experience has been really, really positive. New Zealand feels more like home to me.”

That was in part due to the state of her home country and the freedoms New Zealand allowed her as a woman. 

As a practising Muslim, she felt strongly about immigrants bringing their own way of life here, too.

“I think bringing your culture is a good thing — but at the same time, if you come to a country you come because you like what [culture] is in that country so there has to be a balance.”
She said she disagreed with people who arrived but did not integrate. “Why did you come here — what’s the point?”

I believe Fatima’s story is the rule and not the exception. The more we find our common humanity in each other’s stories the less we will find to fear in being open to immigration to the great benefit of our country.