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A Tale of Two Countries: Comparing recent developments in Australian and American immigration policy

Australian and American lawmakers have taken very different approaches to resolving similar illegal immigration problems.

Australia and the United States of America are similar countries in many ways.  Both face major challenges as their primarily European-descended populations are becoming more diverse through immigration.  One issue which has been in the spotlight in both countries is what to do with immigrants who enter the country illegally.

While Americans are concerned primarily with the border the United States shares with Mexico, Australians’ focus is on their country’s coastline.  “Boat people,” as the would-be immigrants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia are commonly called, make the roughly 2,100-mile journey from Indonesia to Australia with the help of smugglers.  Their aim is to obtain refugee status once they have arrived on Australian shores.

Rudd announced that asylum seekers coming to Australia illegally by boat would not be allowed to stay.

The question of what to do with the boat people has plagued the Australian government for many years.  The first attempt to combat the problem was the “Pacific Solution” adopted by Prime Minister John Howard’s government in 2001.  The Pacific Solution turned back asylum seekers while they were still at sea.  The policy was extremely effective: in 2002, only one boat arrived in Australia, carrying a solitary asylum seeker.

After Howard’s Liberal government was voted out in 2007, the new ALP-affiliated government, led by Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd until June 2010 and Julia Gilliard until June 2013, relaxed the country’s strict immigration policy.  The boats began to return, encouraging Rudd to introduce harsher rules on July 19, 2013, less than one month into his second term as prime minister.  Rudd announced that asylum seekers coming to Australia illegally by boat would not be allowed to stay.  His policy completely prevented “boat people” from entering and settling in the country as refugees.

The new policy’s goal was to reduce the large number of boat people being smuggled into the country illegally, which averaged 3,000 arrivals monthly prior to the announcement.  Instead of being allowed to obtain refugee status and stay in Australia, asylum seekers were sent to nearby Papua New Guinea for processing, where they would be allowed to settle if they were determined to truly be refugees.  Individuals who did not qualify for refugee status were sent back to their home countries or to another country that would accept them.

Since December 8, 2013, seven boatloads of asylum seekers have been turned away.

In September 2013, Rudd resigned and was replaced by Tony Abbott, Australia’s current Prime Minister.  Abbott was elected by a coalition government, but is a longtime Liberal party leader who strongly opposed what he considered to be the ALP’s lax stance on immigration.  Upon taking office, Abbot immediately began Operation Sovereign Borders (pdf), which sent out military ships to search for and turn back asylum seekers.  Since December 8, 2013, seven boatloads of asylum seekers have been turned away.  Many of the would-be immigrants are making the 2,100-mile journey back to Indonesia in lifeboats provided by the Royal Australian Navy.

The tough new program has seen immediate results.  The last known boat of asylum seekers landed on the Australian coast on December 19, 2013, making January 2014 the first January in six years without a landing.  The threat of being turned back has made asylum seekers reconsider whether the treacherous trip is worth the risk.  The number of asylum seekers registering with the UNHCR (The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Indonesia has declined substantially, falling from 1,068 registrations at the Jakarta office in September to only 296 in December.

In addition, many people who register with the UNHCR are making a greater effort to immigrate legally.  In March 2013, before Rudd or Abbott’s program began, sixty-eight percent of registered refugees failed to complete follow-up interviews with the UNHCR, which officials believe indicates that these refugees chose to enter Australia illegally.  In December 2013, however, only nine percent of registered refugees missed their follow-up interviews.

Forty-eight percent of Australians surveyed approved of the government’s handling of the asylum seeker problem.

Though Australians’ feelings about Abbott are mixed (only forty-one percent approved of how he was performing in a February 2014 poll), most agree with his tough stance on immigration.  A July 2013 survey (pdf) of Australians conducted by Monash University Professor Andrew Markus found that forty-two percent of survey participants believed that the current level of immigration intake was too high, while thirty-eight percent believed the level was acceptable and only thirteen percent believed it was too low.

Markus’s study found that approval of asylum seekers was even lower, with only eighteen percent of respondents indicating that boat people should be eligible for permanent settlement in Australia.  A third of respondents supported a turn-back policy, compared with only twenty-three percent supporting such a policy in 2012.

A December 2013 survey, following the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders, conducted by UMR Research found that forty-eight percent of Australians surveyed approved of Abbott’s approach to the asylum seeker problem and sixty percent agreed that asylum seekers should be treated more severely.  Only thirty percent of respondents believed that the asylum seekers were even legitimate refugees.

On the receiving end of the program, Indonesian officials have expressed their strong disapproval for the program. Australian naval vessels inadvertently have crossed into Indonesian waters six times since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders.  Indonesian security officials have urged their Australian counterparts to put a stop to the program, fearing further territorial breaches.  The relationship between the two countries has been severely strained since it was revealed in November 2013 that Australian spies secretly had listened in on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s telephone conversations in August 2009.

American legislators are dragging their feet on immigration reform.

In contrast to the quick, decisive actions taken by Australian lawmakers, American legislators are dragging their feet on immigration reform.  On June 27, 2013, the Senate passed a bill that would strengthen border security and provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. Republican leaders in the House offered their own reform proposal in late January 2014, which also emphasized border security but included plans for a path to legal residency instead of citizenship.

On February 13, 2014, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) announced his intention to use a discharge petition to put the Senate bill up for a vote in the House.  A successful petition would avoid the usual committee process and would go directly to the floor for a vote.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) fired back at the proposal, saying that a discharge petition has “zero chance of success,” calling the bill at issue “deeply flawed” and reaffirming Republicans’ commitment to resolving immigration issues through a piecemeal approach instead of through a comprehensive bill.  Acknowledging that the discharge petition is a long-shot, Schumer expressed his hope that the bill would put pressure on Republicans to act on immigration reform.

In the time that it has taken Australian lawmakers to accomplish a total overhaul of their country’s immigration policy, the U.S. Congress has failed to achieve a complete vote on an immigration reform proposal.

While the immigration problems faced by the countries appear to be similar on the surface, the environments in which they must be addressed are very different.  Prime Minister Abbott is a recently elected coalition leader with relatively high support from his colleagues and his constituents.  Further, the plan he enacted was the plan that the majority of Australians supported.  Because Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is so poor, Australian officials are less concerned about how their immigration policy will be received.

On the other side of the world, American politicians are faced with dismal approval ratings and bipartisan bickering.  Republicans are torn between their dislike of comprehensive immigration reform and their desire to get elected in 2016 and beyond, for which they will need Hispanic support.  Democrats—equally dogged in their demands—want nothing less than comprehensive reform, and they want it sooner rather than later.

In the time that it has taken Australian lawmakers to accomplish a total overhaul of their country’s immigration policy, the U.S. Congress has failed to achieve a complete vote on an immigration reform proposal.  While the new, stricter Australian system comes with problems of its own, American legislators should aspire to achieve the Australians’ level of efficiency in addressing immigration issues.

Katherine Doering Custis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
About Katherine Doering Custis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (19 Articles)
Katherine Doering Custis served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer during the 2014-2015 school year. Katherine holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Public Administration from North Carolina State University. She has worked with the North Carolina National Guard, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate; North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, Research and Planning Division; City of Raleigh, City Attorney's Office; North Carolina General Assembly, Research Division, and Hon. James C. Hudson, Supervising Judge of Suffolk County (NY) Court. She is a native of Southold, NY and now resides in Knightdale, NC. Katherine graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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