5 Steps to Developing Evidenced-Based Immigration Policy

Jess Berentson-ShawUncategorized

In the clear absence of reasoned discussion about New Zealand’s immigration policy of late, racism has reared its ugly head (though it is debatable whether it ever went away).

Triggering the basest nature of humanity, fear, or ignorance never makes for good policy. While evidence is certainly not all that informs good policy, it is a pretty fundamental component of it.

Immigration policy is a complex issue and there are many factors at play. These factors include the need to bring in skills and workers not currently available in New Zealand, the country’s ability to support new people (infrastructure, the environment and services), and the impact on the wellbeing and productivity of those already living here and those who immigrate here (what do they get out of it?). Another of the factors at play is the public appetite for accommodating new people into society. Right now is it looks suspiciously like only one (maybe two) of those factors is being considered in the discussion. Are the policy discussions we are having right now doing a good or even average job of properly exploring all these factors? It does not look like it.

To be clear, the Morgan Foundation has not looked at the evidence regarding immigration, so we have no recommendations to make in that regard. What we can discuss are the steps that would be useful for anyone to take if they were wishing to develop immigration policy on the basis of sound data and quality evidence. We first have to look closely at the benefits and costs of immigration.

1. What benefits can we attribute to current immigration policy in New Zealand?

It is important to consider more than just economic benefits; community and individual benefits matter too. It is also important that quality data is used to answer the question (not guess work or, ahem, bad science). We should consider what is the impact of current immigration on growth in the economy, on national and regional skill shortages? On businesses? What are the benefits to local communities, including existing immigrant communities? Social capital, connectedness, and benefits including tolerance and cultural understanding can all be measured also. Then to the costs…

2. What costs or problems are attributable to our current immigration policy?

Again we need to consider multiple outcomes and measures of economic, environmental and community wellbeing. For example, are there issues around infrastructure, transport, housing and education clearly attributable to the population growth from immigration? Is there quality data to support this? Are there unemployment issues, for both immigrants and local citizens, and again, based on what data? Is the environment, water quality, etc. under extra pressure from immigration numbers? Are there identifiable and measurable social and cultural concerns within communities attributable to immigration issues (separate from dog whistle politics)? Are these issues and costs the same or different for immigrants compared to the local population?

3. If the problems we observe in New Zealand society are not clearly attributable to immigration then we need to consider what other policies work to address the problems we observe.

For example, is the housing squeeze due largely to an absence of an affordable housing policy that works? Is congestion due largely to a lack of investment in suitable transport infrastructure? Are concerns about the non-immigrant population’s unemployment addressed by more comprehensive investment in young children and low-income families, and greater adherence to the evidence in tax and welfare policies? Is New Zealand too invested in housing and not the development of innovative and high-paying industry?

4. If we have good evidence that the costs are attributable to immigration, do the benefits outweigh these costs?

If there is more measured benefits than costs then we come back to what policies work to address those costs, rather than stopping immigration altogether and losing the benefits associated with it. Is there a catch-up phase we need to consider while we use good policy to minimise the identified costs? Are there other ways we could maintain immigration numbers and the benefits citizens (and new immigrants) gain while minimising the costs?

5. Is there evidence there are only costs?

If we find no benefits at all to immigration and can attribute only costs and problems to immigration (based on quality data, not something that was made up), then a policy of drastically cutting numbers is perhaps justified. Is it really likely that there are no measureable benefits to immigration? Really?

From what we can observe, very little quality evidence of the type we have outlined (and this is in no way comprehensive) has informed the immigration discussions to date. Which is a shame, because in that vacuum we see the worst of people emerge.

5 Steps to Developing Evidenced-Based Immigration Policy was last modified: April 27th, 2017 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.