'Do not come': Why the Biden administration's blunt message to migrants sounds familiar to Australia

Analysts say the rhetoric surrounding immigration to the United States right now bears a striking similarity to the asylum seeker debate in Australia.

Vice President Kamala Harris in Mexico City after a two-nation foreign trip to Guatemala and Mexico.

Vice President Kamala Harris in Mexico City after a two-nation foreign trip to Guatemala and Mexico. Source: Sipa USA Las Cruces Sun-News-USA TODAY NE

When Kamala Harris was in Guatemala earlier this week, she uttered a sentence that would ring eerily familiar to Australians.

“Do not come, do not come,” the US vice president said, in remarks directed at Central American migrants considering crossing the land border into the United States.

“The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.

"There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur," Ms Harris went on. "But we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration and I believe if you come to our border you will be turned back."

Ms Harris’s speech followed mounting pressure from Republicans critical of the Biden administration and the recent spike in numbers of migrants making their way to the US-Mexico border.

Analysts in Australia say there are striking similarities between the recent rhetoric surrounding US immigration and our own country's ongoing debate on asylum seekers. 

For many years now, Australia has instituted a turn-back policy for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Labor reinstated offshore processing in 2012 amid mounting pressure from the Coalition over the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

After the Coalition took power the following year, asylum seekers yet to make the journey to Australia were warned in video messages featuring one of the nation's top military figures that there was “no way” they could come to Australia.

“You will not make Australia home,” the message said.

For Regina Jefferies, an affiliate of the UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, there were strong echoes in the rhetoric of the vice president with some of the messaging in recent years in Australia.

“I do think that this is sort of an attempt by the Democrats to take a more stringent tone which does have echoes of the sort of shift [we’ve seen] in Australian politics as well,” she told SBS News.

“Under the rhetoric of human trafficking and these other sorts of seemingly humanitarian efforts, what's actually happening is that countries like Australia and the US are targeting people who might be moving to basically escape persecution or other serious harm.”

Ms Jefferies, who has spent more than a decade practising asylum and refugee law in the US, said there appeared to be similarities between the US and Australia in how the conservative side of politics pushed the left on immigration.

“When I heard Vice President Harris say these things, immediately my mind turned to what's happened in Australia in terms of domestic politics and Labor's moves to sort of track more closely the LNP line on asylum seekers on migration,” she said.

Australian government ads deterring asylum seekers, featuring Angus Campbell.
Australian government ads deterring asylum seekers, featuring Angus Campbell. Source: Supplied

“The calculation that it appears the Biden administration and Vice President Harris (have made) … appears to be from the outside, very similar to the calculation that Labor made, you know, appearing tough on asylum seekers and appearing tough on this issue.”

Former Labor minister Craig Emerson says Labor's position on asylum seekers never fundamentally changed and the party was always against people arriving by boat.

"There will never be a circumstance where the Australian people will just say, well as many people should be able to come, apply for asylum, be allowed in, and that constitutes our immigration program - that is not the view of the Australian people and it's not the view of the American people at large."

But he agrees that in both the US and Australia, the debate is driven by the right.

"The politics of people coming into a country unauthorised, always seems to go one way and that is to the conservative way," he told SBS News.

Bruce Wolpe, Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre, also noted similarities between the immigration debate in the US and the rhetoric around asylum seekers in Australia.

“I mean, here [in Australia], any weakness [towards asylum seekers] is seen as a defeat,” he said, pointing to the example of the .

“Republicans are making the same argument in the United States that if you open the door by a crack it's going to be open a mile, and you will have no control over immigration into the country.”

Mr Emerson agrees, saying Australia's stance on immigration has been dictated by One Nation.

"Where we are now is, I fear, that politics of cruelty, and that is if a government can show how mean spirited and cruel it is, somehow this will be a great deterrent to an 'armada of boats'," he said.

The Coalition has long argued that its tough policies have “stopped the boats” and prevented asylum seekers from making the journey by boat.

Mr Wolpe, who worked with the Democrats in Congress in former president Barack Obama's first term, and as a staffer for former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, believes Ms Harris’ message has been heard and the numbers will slow.

“We're dealing with an intangible number here, but I have to believe that the flow will be less than it would have been if nothing had been done,” he said.

“When they entered office [there were] really terrible conditions across the board. They have eased somewhat and so the question is what will make it better consistent with a humane policy? That's what they're trying to do.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris at the Sofitel Hotel in Mexico City after a two-nation foreign trip to Guatemala and Mexico.
US Vice President Kamala Harris at the Sofitel Hotel in Mexico City after a two-nation foreign trip to Guatemala and Mexico. Source: Sipa USA Las Cruces Sun-News-USA TODAY NE

But Ms Jefferies has a different view, arguing the Coalition’s policies never actually deterred asylum seekers to Australia, and neither will they for Central Americans fleeing to the US.

“Australia's policies haven't actually stopped people fleeing persecution or seeking safety here. It's just where they've stopped them,” she said.

“In the US, it's a little different because with a land border ... it's actually impossible to control all of that.

“But none of these policies, none of this rhetoric is going to stop people fleeing persecution and harm, violence, whatever they're facing. There's so much evidence that these types of policies don't change someone's mind about whether to flee … and that's true for Australia’s situation currently and that's true in the US as well.”

For Mr Wolpe, one of the more lamentable aspects of the similarities between the two countries’ treatment of migrants and asylum seekers is the hyper-partisanship of the debate.

“You know, you stick your head above the parapet and say, ‘well, I think we should let more legitimate asylum seekers into the country’, and there are people waiting on the other side to blow your head off for saying it,” he said.

“The shame of it is that this really does seem to be an unbridgeable political divide in both countries right now - you're either on one side or the other side.

“We need better leadership to try and bridge this gap. There has to be a way for consensus to develop as to how we’re going to have immigration in the country without dividing either democracy right down the middle.”

7 min read
Published 12 June 2021 at 1:15pm
By Rashida Yosufzai