Editorial: How not to run an immigration system

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The Lee family at home. Members of St Christopher’s Catholic Parish in Syndal, Melbourne, have spent nearly a decade trying to meet Department of Immigration rules for residency. PHOTO: Laura Cheung, iCapture Photography

On paper, the Lee family, members of St Christopher’s Catholic Parish, Syndal, in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs, are exactly the kind of people we want to migrate to Australia. Firstly, they are hardworking business operators who have successfully established two businesses – one a Korean restaurant in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD, the other a cleaning business – since they came to Australia almost 10 years ago from South Korea. The businesses did well, exceeding the $200,000 per annum turnover required by the Department of Immigration for those wishing to establish themselves in this country.

Their children have also done well in their education with sons Daniel, 23, and Brian, 21, both studying science, with Daniel specialising in Medical Chemistry. Their third child, Richard, aged 11 (he was two when he arrived in Australia), is currently in Grade 6 at the local Primary school. Richard is basically a typical Aussie schoolboy from a migrant background who has known nothing else in his young life than growing up in an Australian metropolitan suburb with everything that comes with that. His own words sum his life in this country up: “I’m basically not a Korean person,” he told The Catholic Weekly last week. There is every reason to expect all three sons will go on to develop sound livelihoods as professionals or in whatever field they choose, thereby contributing their expertise to the social fabric and common good of Australia.

In the decade they have lived here, parents David, 53, and wife Jessica, 51, have invested their life savings in establishing themselves in Australia, including more than $1 million into the Australian economy. None of the family have any convictions and no known criminal associations. So perhaps it is for all the above reasons that after a decade spent trying to gain permanent residency the Department of Immigration has decided to kick the Lees out of the country and send them back to South Korea. The Department’s decision was communicated to the Lees on 21 July and they were given until 3 August to leave.

If we wanted to write the script of a movie that was basically a nightmare we would be hard-pressed to come up with a storyline as bizarre as the experience of the Lee family in Australia and the strange tale of their encounters with this country’s immigration system and its associated bureaucrats. Franz Kafka, the father of surrealism in modern literature would surely approve. A close-knit family who have given their all to this country have been told they are not good enough for us. Furthermore, now that they have been divested, basically, of their life savings, we are booting them out because of what can only be described as mere technicalities – if that. Their one mistake, it seems, was to trust a countryman early on in their quest to become Australians.

The story of the Lee family demonstrates something that has gone terribly wrong with this country and which is apparently entrenched. Ten years spent meeting the criteria of Australia’s immigration system and, we can certainly say, meeting it successfully, have in the end proved to be both futile and meaningless exercises.

Their quest was futile because, as is now apparent, they were not dealing with fellow human beings who could bring some kind of wisdom, discernment and common sense to bear on assessing their requests to become Australians. Instead, they had the misfortune to find themselves dealing with the constantly shifting and manoeuvering automatons of Official Policy and their obsessive fixations with Correct Operating Procedure in all the worst traditions of bureaucracies which keep the minutes and waste the hours and dollars of the nation. And it seems true, also, Australia’s paralysed immigration system is emblematic of a wider problem: is Australia is a ship, it looks more like one that is foundering.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton should be ashamed that it is on his watch that exactly the kinds of people we need and want here to help build Australia are instead being booted out of it without the slightest scintilla of decency to accompany his decision. We can think of no more accurate and direct way of describing the Lee story except as hopelessly counterproductive, a tragic parable of how not to run an immigration system or a country. But then, perhaps it is we who have it the wrong way round. Perhaps it is we who don’t deserve the Lees, after all. Why? Normally speaking, people don’t usually swim towards sinking ships.