Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

No-one is illegal: Quality Assurance Programme Overload

As welcome as he is to the ranks, Taito Phillip Field should really have quit Cabinet before joining my comrades at the No Border Network. But now he's here, say it with me now bro, no-one is illegal!

And I do believe that. So I stand by the props I gave to Field for actually trying to help someone overcome the institutional (or as some prefer it, 'accidental') racism of the immigration system, while also noting simultaneously that for someone in Field's position, it was badly judged, politically naive, objectively exploitative, and bore the unavoidable whiff of corruption. Philip, you gotta refine your technique. There's some great stuff being done with border camps these days. Failing that, you can get a whole lot of passive-resistance activists together and form a human shield. And failing even that, fly your threatened-deportee to safety, then pay them at least the minimum wage to tile your house. If you were really going to be fair, make sure they weren't actually a tiler to begin with. In fact, the crapper they were at tiling, the more ethical your actions would be.

I don't know, maybe the minimum wage in Samoa is NZ$2 an hour.

I haven't found any actual new information since the TVNZ story broke on Monday, so all the information here on the case comes from that text and video-clip. Field, the MP for Mangere, flew Thai tiler Sunan Siriwan to Samoa to work on his house for $100 a week, while Field supported his application for a New Zealand work permit. The permit was subsequently granted by a Cabinet colleague (Field being Assoc. Minister Pacific, Damien O'Connor being Assoc. Minister Immigration). O'Connor denied knowledge of Siriwan's activities in Samoa.

Does it stink? I might be able provide some useful information, beyond the usual radical-absurdist ranting.

No, really.

In a former life, during the Year of the Tampa and 9/11, I was a Refugee Status Officer for the Refugee Status Branch of the N(no vowel here, no sirree)ZIS, and so, have a passing familiarity with the Visa & Permits system. I'm not a V&P expert, but here's what I can help you with.

Is it remarkable for Immigration Ministers to 'intervene' in visa matters? Hardly. There's a whole section of the Immigration Service set up exactly for appeals to the Immigration Ministers. It's called 'Ministerials', and its entire business is recommending to Ministers whether or not to make exceptions. O'Connor's letter was probably a template. If you don't say to everyone who gets a Ministerial reprieve that it's an 'exception', then everyone will want one.

Do 'personal representations' from MPs make much of a difference in Immigration Ministerials? Possibly not any more than from any other respected members of the public. Or at least, they shouldn't. MPs write letters for their constituents to the Immigration Minister all the time - a letter from your MP may even be a prequisite or de facto standard-issue for a Ministerial appeal, I can't quite recall. They also send them to Immigration Officers and Refugee Status Officers (who shove them down the back of a filing cabinet and get on with their first-instance determination jobs). They do it in their capacity as constituent MPs, and any influence they might have on the Immigration Minister should be nonpartisan. We don't know what kind of 'personal representation' (TVNZ's term) Field made to O'Connor, but based on what I do know, I see no reason to disbelieve O'Connor's statement that he made the decision to grant Siriwan's permit on the facts of the case before him. The fact that specialist roofers are on the NZIS Immediate Skill Shortage List tends to support this opinion, don't you think? Tiles go on roofs, right? Especially in Thailand. If Field was on top of his Immigration Skill Shortage lists (you'd have to be if you were repping Mangere), his ears would have pricked up twofold once Siriwan's tiling-experience came to light. Uncovering that skill would have given Siriwan a good shot at Ministerial appeal on merit alone.

So as little love as I have for the Immigration system (and I have very very little love for it) I don't think it's been abused by Cabinet nudge-winking in this case, at least from the information I have at my disposal. Questions over behaviour here are all isolated around Field. If my hypothesis about O'Connor's clean role in this affair holds up, it is damning that Field didn't disclose his employer-relationship with Siriwan to the Assoc. Minister for Immigration. I can't think of another reason he failed to disclose other than he knew it would look bad and jeopardise Siriwan's chances. Which it has now done, with O'Connor running back to his files like a good clean bureaucrat. So let us judge. Why not. I've determined hundreds of asylum-claims, I should be able to deal with one MP on a Tuesday night.

1. If Siriwan had stayed in New Zealand as an overstayer without help with his permit application, he would likely have been deported, given that the same fate had just befallen his de facto partner and child (NB: Thai marriages tend not to be officially written down, except in the brain of Buddha). As stated in the TVNZ clip, part of the reason why Field thought it would be a great idea to pay Siriwan's way to Samoa was to help him avoid deportation. Nice big softhearted tick.

2. Field didn't pay him anywhere near the New Zealand minimum wage for the job. Lose the nice big softhearted tick. But this is just a cosmetic blemish branching off the bigger badder picture.

3. Which is this: If Siriwan hadn't been a tiler, from what we know so far, Field wouldn't have flown him to Samoa to remove him from the threat of deportation. Consistency breaks down. The supported flight from the deportation threat (a previous deportation being a big black mark in applying for a work permit) was a matter of happy coincidence and mutual benefit. If Field had been just a local businessman, everything he'd done would have been perfectly acceptable. But he is not just a local businessman. The guanxi ghost starts to raise its head and howl. When do happy coincidences start to set precedents for expectations of mutual benefit for any person seeking aid from their MP? Big black mark. Red pen. Quality Assurance Programme Overload. System malfunction. You cannot expect vulnerable migrants from countries that run on guanxi to not make assumptions, to not play along with systems that you've set up for them, unintentionally or not.

4. But ultimately, laying low and laying tiles in Samoa was not what got Siriwan the work permit. If Siriwan had been a viticulturalist, an occupation also on the Immediate Skill Shortage list, and Field had no jones for a Samoan vineyard, he would have left Siriwan hiding from Border & Investigations in a Mangere garage. But there's nothing to suggest that Field wouldn't have written to Ministerials supporting Siriwan's work permit application as any MP doing their job would - nor that the permit wouldn't have been granted in accordance with skill shortage requirements. Would he have done so? It's impossible to answer. But if my faith in the despicable system holds up, no points lost here.

5. If Siriwan had absolutely no skills required by the NZIS Skill Shortage lists - if he like so many other seasonal or illegal Thai workers in hock to their moneylenders had been a goddamn paddy farmer - Field's support would probably not have been enough to qualify him for a work permit even if the character-reference was just as convincing. So it's impossible to even construct a hypothetical test here. By default, no points lost.

6. No disclosure to Immigration in Field's support for the work permit, that he was also employing Siriwan. Extrinsic justification of benefit to deserving migrant outweighed by instrinsic dishonesty and damage to transparent process. No excuse (even if he hadn't hired him yet). Heading for the shredder.

Application declined. Taito Phillip Field you have failed as a responsible politician and MP, while weirdly enough, in concrete terms, proving yourself a better friend on the ground to Asian migrants than Steven Ching has been. You fucked up big-time, but I don't quite yet believe you're a bad guy. Too bad for you that it's three days 'til the election. I doubt that even a human shield can save you now. Is it time to say fa?

Update: new article in Herald today, but not online, has Clark backing Field as "trying to be helpful", and Field stating that there was no formal employment arrangement. He comes off looking 'nice'. No human shields required for now.

Additional notes:

1. Why, as I asked Idiot/Savant, is the government wanting to deport tilers during a skills shortage of specialist roofers? As is clear from the TVNZ story, Siriwan needed Keith Williams (the other tiler) to help him even speak to Field, and also to help him fill out his immigration application. Siriwan was probably in no situation to understand what his rights were, what he was eligible for, or that he actually was just as good as the people that New Zealand is spending big bucks on trying to attract from non-Asian 'traditional' (white) sources of immigration.

2. Policymakers are paid to think and have many competing ideas, and I hope that the concept of regularising and giving real rights to the illegal migrants who are actually already here and who are already working in those shitty jobs we can't seem to lure 'proper' immigrants to come and do, soon starts to get traction in NZIS policy as an alternative to recruiting European holidaymakers to pick apples ... or at least gets as much traction as the idea of derogating from the asylum-provisions of the Refugee Convention currently does. They think about everything down there, even if they know it's really really wrong.

3. Among other things it damaged, my time in the Immigration Service also destroyed my writing style, so apologies if this flashback post seems like it's been written by a lawyer whose hands are in prison and whose head is down the toilet.

4. Ironically, my theme for the May '06 issue of Landfall I've just started guest-editing is 'Borderline'. If you start wondering about any long Yellow Peril silences, blame poetry. Fucking poetry.

5. Or blame the election.