At 28 percent, the proportion of Australia’s population that is foreign born is approximately twice as high as that of the United States, and its annual flow of immigrants per 1,000 residents is more than three times as high as America’s (11 new immigrants per 1,000 residents for Australia versus three per 1,000 residents for the United States).49
Australia possesses some of the world’s most pro-growth immigration policies. The 457 temporary visa, equivalent to a U.S. H-1B visa, is easy to obtain for high-skilled professionals. Moreover, such professionals can normally transition to permanent residence after two years, in contrast to the six to 10 years or longer it can take for an employment-based green card in the U.S. immigration system. Intracompany transfers into Australia are considered a snap, and working holiday visas help fill gaps in the workforce, along with visas for lower-skilled workers.
Australia possesses a long history of accepting immigrants, starting from its roots as a British penal colony (and later a group of colonies) from 1788 through its transition to the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. While earlier waves of immigrants came from England, the leading countries of origin today are India and China, with the United Kingdom (U.K.) in third place.50
Like in many advanced economies, immigration stories that capture the most media attention concern unauthorized immigrants. In Australia, that has meant asylum seekers attempting to arrive via boat.
While some U.S. policymakers have looked at Australia as a possible model for the United States, aspects of Australia’s system make it distinct and potentially challenging to adopt. First, Australia’s points-based system is generally not relevant to employers, according to immigration attorneys. “The points system is not at all important for corporate immigration in Australia,” said Tim Denney with Berry Appleman & Leiden in Sydney. “The points system comes into play when an individual seeks to migrate to Australia and does not have a business operating in Australia willing to sponsor him or her upfront for either a temporary work visa or permanent residence.”51
Second, 70 percent of immigrants admitted to Australia each year arrive via a family connection. While about one-third of immigrants come to Australia as family sponsored, an Australian Parliamentary report explained, “It is important to acknowledge that over fifty percent of the Skill Stream is in fact comprised of family (secondary visa holders).”52 Combining the numbers from the two programs, the report noted, “It may be interpreted that over the past decade the family component has actually accounted for around 70 per cent of the total Migration Program.”53 The conclusion: “In this light, family migration still remains at the very heart of Australia’s Migration Program,” and the report calls family migration a “net gain” that helps attract skilled workers.54
Third, in addition to lower-skilled visas, Australia fills niches in its labor market via Working Holiday visas. The visas allow people ages 18–30 from nearly 20 countries, including the U.K., France, Germany and Canada, to work for up to 12 months at any job in Australia (no more than six months with one employer).55 In 2012, Australia granted 258,250 working holiday visas.56
Fourth, similar to the free movement of labor within the European Union, citizens of New Zealand can enter Australia to work without a visa. In 2012, 41,200 people from New Zealand came to Australia as “permanent settlers under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement.”57
The Australian government is trying to attract workers who will help companies grow. America could learn a lot from the Land Down Under.
49. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
51. Interview with Tim Denney.
52. Gareth Larsen (December 23, 2013), Family Migration to Australia, Parliamentary Library Research Paper.
55. Working Holiday Visa, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
56. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.