The internal border: migration policing networks—‘making life difficult’ for unlawful non-citizens

Supposedly voluntary presentations accounted for 82 per cent of unlawful noncitizens located by the DIAC in the financial year 2011 (DIAC 2011). However, this statistic conceals a labyrinth of monitoring and status checking that can be the catalyst for many of these ‘voluntary’ contacts. This statement from a senior DIAC manager indicates that multi-agency strategies intended to ‘make life difficult' for unlawful non-citizens, while not directly under DIAC control, are being consciously incorporated into the Department's immigration compliance strategy:

Already someone that’s overstayed and disappeared and has no entitlements and Medicare benefits or ... any form of social security benefit or anything like that, so they’re very dependent on employment ... We’re shifting where our resources apply and also we’re ... we’re looking to these other ways of... making life difficult for people ... so that they come in and see us. (Interview 45, DIAC Canberra)

Agencies that participate in these ‘structural’ migration policing projects are recruited through a variety of incentivization schemes, ranging from statutory requirements on service providers to check immigration status before providing benefits or services; government funding arrangements that require proof of legal status in order to recover costs for the provision of services; to the threat of legal sanctions against business owners who employ individuals who lack legal entitlements to work or remain in the country. The effect is to create an invisible and seemingly ubiquitous internal border. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to outline the role and motivation of all of these migration policing partners (see Weber et al, forthcoming). In this section we concentrate solely on the recruitment of private employers to migration policing roles.

Australian employers have been co-opted into policing the internal border through education and the threat of punishment. Criminal sanctions were introduced in 2007, accompanied by employer awareness training by the DIAC and the introduction of the VEVO (Visa Entitlement Verification On-line) system that can be used by registered employers to check the immigration status of prospective employees. The number of VEVO checks made by employers increased rapidly from 245,000 in 2007-2008 to nearly 600,000 in 2008-2009 (DIAC 2009: 123) and rose to over one million checks by 2010-2011 (DIAC 2011: 167). In addition to the obligation on employers to deny employment to undocumented workers, enquiries to the VEVO system leave a record that provides intelligence to the DIAC. The DIAC Compliance Office in Sydney has a specialist team within the Business Compliance unit that works proactively with industry in an educative role and identifies noncompliant employers who may be liable to prosecution, usually after one or more warning notices. DIAC managers believe that this preventative work has paid significant dividends in terms of preventing illegal working in targeted industries:

Virtually throughout Australia now most of the taxi licensing authorities are doing immigration checks . so using those sort of methods have had a quite high . quite a good return. . To get the security guard’s license in New South Wales you know they must conduct an immigration check and that’s been very effective . from our point of view, that industry’s been completely virtually tidied up. (Interview 45, DIAC Canberra)

Despite the reported impact of these efforts, the Australian government introduced new legislation in 2011 to toughen the employer sanction regime, in response to a review of existing sanctions. The review concluded that the number of illegal workers in Australia had been growing since around 1998 and that existing sanctions and educational efforts had not been effective (Howells 2011). The new legislation included strict liability civil penalties to supplement existing criminal sanctions (which are likely to be reserved for systematic breaches), new powers to gather evidence, and the extension of liability to a wider range of employers, agents, and contractors. A stronger deterrent was considered necessary for the protection of workers and the integrity of the labour market, but was also identified as an important symbolic function linked to the internal performance of Australian sovereignty: ‘The absence of an effective deterrent against the employment of noncitizens who do not have permission to work is an abrogation of Australian sovereignty and a contradiction of the otherwise orderly pattern of migration and the refugee and humanitarian relief programs’ (Howells 2011: 12). Responsible employers are therefore expected to align themselves with principles of good governance and become incorporated into the administrative state.

The Ministerial press release announcing the new laws asserted the government’s commitment to ‘get tough on dodgy employers’ in order to ‘punish those who wilfully exploit foreign workers’ (Bowen 2011). This formulation assumes that the employment of undocumented non-citizens is necessarily exploitative. Moreover, although the DIAC’s compliance and enforcement effort in relation to illicit working is said to be directed towards exploitative employers, the continued emphasis on removing unlawful workers is apparent. The Howells review noted that one of the main reasons for the failure to prosecute employers under the 2007 criminal provisions was that illegally employed workers who were likely to be needed as witnesses were often removed before criminal prosecutions could be pursued. As for possible detrimental impacts on employers and bona fide employees, Howells reasoned that the burden on employers ofadditional regulation was proportionate to the gains to be made in national security and protection of the labour market; and observed that workers who are Australian citizens ‘will need to shoulder their part of the inconvenience by being prepared to obtain adequate forms of identification for employment’ (Howells, 2011: 15). The slow expansion of employer sanctions appears to be encroaching, seemingly unnoticed, not only on relations between employers and employees, but also on the freedoms enjoyed by citizens.

 
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