One by one, they were blocked from entering the United States: a scientist barred from a flight, two engineers detained in Boston, and a doctoral student put back on a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
It was 2017, and the travellers were all Iranian nationals holding permanent U.S. residency or valid work or student visas, and their lives were disrupted when President Trump signed an executive order to ban nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, including Iran.
Trump’s order has deprived U.S. companies and universities of accomplished students and employees, including data scientists, doctors and engineers. And while President Trump signed an executive order banning travellers from seven majority Muslim countries, and the Bexit vote threatened to close the UK’s borders to skilled talent from the EU and beyond, Australia remained open for business and has been issuing visas to skilled migrants from around the world.
Immigration Gives Australian Companies a Competitive Advantage
As many business leaders around the world have recognised, we are all in search of the best people to help our companies grow and prosper in a rapidly changing, globalised environment. That’s why immigration policy which is geared towards attracting the best and brightest is critical, giving Australian companies a competitive advantage in the worldwide war for talent.
Every Australian company seeking to to business needs access to the most talented people they can get to compete with other countries in order to achieve dominance in its local and exportable industries. Many of those people are migrants.
Unlike the US and UK, Australia’s skilled immigration policies to not discriminate on the basis of the country of origin of the visa applicant. If a migrant has a high level of skill as defined by the Department of Home Affairs, then he or she can apply for a work visa provided that character, health and other requirements can be satisfied.
How Australia has become an attractive destination for some skilled migrants
For one client, Australian tech start-up Cloud Conformity, their ability to sponsor their lead software engineer on a TSS visa was instrumental to the company’s impressive growth. Their senior engineer is an Iranian national, and he was instrumental in the design of the Saas company’s technology platform, having worked remotely from Iran and then from Australia once the TSS visa sponsorship was approved. Technology advancements allow companies to access skills from anywhere in the world, however there remains a need to have people “on the ground”. In this case, it was necessary to bring the expertise internally to mitigate key person risk, to build the engineering team through transfer of skills, and to create a strong team culture ready for growth. Cloud Conformity has secured Series A funding which has enabled international expansion of the company into the US, however given the current immigration policies in the US which prohibit entry by Iranian citizens, the engineering team will remain firmly based in Sydney, Australia.
In another case, The Migration Agency supported the visa application of a leading academic who had received offers to work at several prestigious universities – including in the UK, USA and Australia. Her partner is an Iranian citizen and is completing his PHD in the United States. He is unable to leave the US during his study, or he will be prohibited from returning under the Trump Administration’s travel ban on Iranian citizens. In light of the travel restrictions for her partner, she opted to accept a teaching positions at the University of Sydney where she can live and work freely with her partner.
So what can Australia do to capitalise on the current immigration environment, and win the war on talent?
Henry Sherrell from the Lowy Institute provides some recommendations:
1. Capitalise on highly skilled and talented people in the US and the UK who either want to move or will be forced to do so due to visa restrictions.
Researchers and scientists, business leaders and entrepreneurs; you name them, we want them. The Australian IT industry is constantly grumbling about how difficult it is to compete with Silicon Valley. The Trump Administration presents the best opportunity we will ever see to present Australia as a place of welcome and innovation, a place where your visa won’t be torn up if you have the ‘wrong’ passport. Couple this with the massive uncertainty faced by EU migrants arising from Brexit and there are two enormous sources of skilled workers yearning for certainty and a different environment. Actively promoting a set of immigration incentives to attract these people will help Australia continue to lay the foundation for an economy based on what we know instead of what we make.
2. Use immigration policy more strategically to improve regional relations
Australia can take advantage of its bilateral and multilateral links in the Asia-Pacific region given the possible vacuum of political power if the United States withdraws from active engagement in the region, as signalled by the Trump Administration exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Immigration policies alone cannot compensate for this, but they can play a role in improving regional relations.
Pacific island governments have long agitated for better access to Australia’s labour market so their citizens can earn higher incomes. The Seasonal Worker Program taps into this, targeting parts of the labour market like horticulture where few Australians want to work.
3. Find additional opportunities to complement future labour demand
Finding new sources of labour in industries such as aged care will be critical for Australia to meet challenges such as its ageing population. However, Australia must have a zero tolerance approach to employers who undercut wages and conditions. This labour market access represents a unique part of our strategic toolkit, given China will not allow this type of immigration. It is also the single best income generating mechanism for isolated Pacific island countries, potentially worth $10 billion by 2040, thus helping regional stability.
4. Build upon the success of international student migration from the region
Building on the success of South-East Asian international student migration to Australia is another opportunity. While there were more than 12,000 Indonesian students studying in Australian higher education institutions during June 2016, there were also six times more Irish temporary skilled workers in Australia than Indonesian. This is despite Indonesia having a population 50 times larger than Ireland and Jakarta to Sydney being less than one third of the distance from Dublin to Sydney. Working out how to enmesh Australia with stronger people to people links in business and industry through immigration will pay long-term dividends in the region.
5. Find a positive conclusion to the offshore detention of asylum seekers
Sherrell argues that Australia’s ability to be an international leader on immigration will be heavily constrained as long as Manus and Nauru continue to hold so many asylum seekers. Even with the successful conclusion of the United States refugee agreement, which will be the subject of internal Trump Administration contention and appears highly uncertain, there are unanswered questions about what will happen to those refused refugee visas. But, given 28% of Australians are migrants, there is surprisingly little understanding of broader immigration policy. This holds us back and hides the opportunities. While domestic political implications must be recognised, the high base of existing public support means governments can be more adventurous. 2017 is the perfect time to start taking immigration policy more seriously.