Sydney protester tells Trump to go for coffee. Photo: Reuters
Sydney protester tells Trump to go for coffee. Photo: Reuters

Returning to his signature issue of immigration during his inaugural speech before Congress, Donald Trump suggested taking lessons from overseas. Specifically, he pointed to Australia, as well as Canada, as an example of a country with the sort of “merit-based” immigration system the US should be trying to copy.

“It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially,” Trump told a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, local time. “Yet in America we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.”

Shifting from low-skilled to high-skilled immigration, Trump claimed, would save countless taxpayer dollars, help raise wages and lift more struggling families into the middle class.

While Trump’s praise was regarded with embarrassment in some quarters here, few quibbled with his basic characterization of the Australian model. Although both immigrant nations, the countries have adopted noticeably different approaches to selecting foreigners.

Compared to the US, a far greater proportion of Australia’s permanent migration is based on metrics like education, work experience and age than on family connections. In 2014, 68% of permanent visas were issued to skilled immigrants, while 32% were linked to family connections. In the US that year, by contrast, 64% of issuances were related to family reunion, with just 15% connected to employment.

It’s not clear, however, if Trump would be so impressed with Australia’s relatively high immigration intake compared to the United States. While exact comparisons are difficult as many visas are issued to people already in the country, Australia accepted more than 260,000 permanent immigrants last year. With a population of just 24 million, that figure puts it significantly ahead on a per capita basis of the US, which accepted 1 million permanent migrants in 2014. Australia also makes it relatively easy to immigrate as a temporary skilled worker with an employer’s backing, with no cap on numbers and a path left open to permanent residency. And it gives foreign students greater opportunities to live on in the country after graduation. While 14% of melting pot America was born overseas, the proportion is double that in Australia.

The countries also face a completely distinct set of circumstances. With no land borders, Australia does not experience levels of illegal immigration comparable to the US, mostly sidestepping heated debates about deporting, regularizing or just ignoring undocumented workers. While embracing relatively open legal immigration, Australia takes an unquestionably tough line on asylum seekers who come by sea. Refugees who attempt to arrive by boat are invariably intercepted and sent for processing at one of a number of offshore detention centers, forever banned from settling in the country.

Detainees walk around the compound among water bottles inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, February 11, 2017.  Behrouz Boochani/Handout via REUTERS
Not so lucky for some… Photo: Reuters

While anti-immigration rhetoric has exploded in the United States, most Australians remain relatively sanguine about foreigners coming to their country. In one poll carried out last year, almost 60% of the public said the current level of immigration was acceptable or even too low.

“There are groups that are very upset with aspects of our policies, especially toward refugees and asylum seekers,” Gwenda Tavan, a migrant expert at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said, “but generally speaking, I think a very strong tradition of policy aimed at reinforcing the fact that governments do keep control of the numbers and the types that come in has reinforced a positive attitude.”

Tavan said that Australians in general had faith in the government’s handling of immigration, preventing the kind of major public backlash seen in numerous other jurisdictions.

“It has actually been quite pioneering in many areas of immigration policy, and one of the benefits of that has been that in fact people have had more confidence in the capacity of policymakers to get it right,” she said. “So I don’t think it’s an accident that Australians generally seem quite satisfied.”