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On March 18, 2002, immigration minister Philip Ruddock was all smiles. On that day the minister, whom the Australian public had come to associate with a stern face issuing grave warnings of queue jumpers and illegal immigrants, tried to remind Australians that his portfolio was, after all, also concerned with immigration, and not just border protection. At Sydney International Airport, he welcomed Cristina Jurado, her husband Karlo, and their two young children to Australia. ‘The arrival of Mrs Jurado and her family is an example of Australia’s multiculturalism and cultural diversity, which is at the heart of our nation’s strength,’ Ruddock said. Cristina Jurado was the six millionth immigrant to arrive in Australia since World War II.

This was not the first time that the Department of Immigration had tried to publicise such milestones to draw attention to the success of Australia’s immigration program. On previous occasions, the department had prepared shortlists of suitable candidates and then carefully selected an immigrant to mark the event. In 1949, for example, to celebrate the arrival of the 50,000th immigrant sponsored by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), the immigration minister welcomed a ‘smiling, flaxen-haired girl of seven’ from Latvia who was accompanied by her parents and brother. The immigration department probably made a similarly informed choice in 2002. Cristina Jurado was young and photogenic. The Jurados came to Australia as part of the skilled migrant intake, rather than under the family reunion program which has been cut back under the Howard government. Their experience and qualifications were sought after: Cristina was a systems analyst, and Karlo expected to find work as an operations manager.

The Jurados were promoted as the type of new settlers Australia wanted: young, skilled, English-speaking, and full of optimism. Their application had been carefully screened by the Department of Immigration. Their orderly arrival by invitation contrasted with the supposedly uncontrolled invasion of Australian territorial waters by asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, who were neither invited nor welcome, and with the surreptitious activities of people without valid visas who were found out during raids on building sites and orchards.

The Jurados were from the Philippines. That was probably no accident either. During the 1980s, the Philippines had become a key recruiting ground for new settlers. During the 1990s, more migrants arrived each year from the Philippines than from North, Central and South America combined. In 2000-01, settler arrivals from the Philippines had comprised the sixth-largest group of new immigrants, after those from New Zealand, the UK, China, India, South Africa and Indonesia.

The selection of a young Filipino family also served to counter prevalent images, according to which the typical immigrant from the Philippines was young, female and the spouse of a non-Filipino Australian citizen. These images were not altogether incorrect: the previous Australian census had counted three Philippines-born women for every two Philippines-born men. Vivian Alvarez Solon, the naturalised Australian citizen who was mistakenly deported to the Philippines in 2001 and found in a hospice north of Manila only last month, was one of those so-called Filipina brides.

The celebration of Cristina Jurado’s arrival was to draw attention to Australia’s non-discriminatory migrant selection procedure. The composition of Australia’s migrant intake seems to prove that Australia welcomes new settlers regardless of their colour or creed, as long as they can make a contribution to Australian society. Nowadays, Australia accepts more migrants from Asia than from Europe, the UK included, although the fact that people born in Britain still comprise by far the largest group of migrants accepted under Australia’s skilled migration program suggests that the playing field is not as level as the immigration department’s rhetoric claims.

The circumstances of Alvarez’s wrongful deportation have raised doubts about the supposedly non-discriminatory approach taken by immigration officers. ‘I keep saying that maybe because of the colour of her skin she was just deported like that,’ Alvarez’s sister Cicile Solon told the ABC’s Lateline program last month. ‘But had she been white, like the rest of you, maybe it would have been a different story.’ Cicile Solon shared a concern that in recent weeks has been expressed by Australians in letters to the editor and on talkback radio. Her suspicions also tallied with that held by many refugee advocates who believe that the White Australia policy still informs the mindset of some officers of the Department of Immigration.

Cicile Solon’s misgivings should not have been unexpected. Nor should the Australian government have been surprised by the public criticism voiced by the Philippines authorities. Attorney Ricardo Diaz, chief of the Interpol Division of the Philippines National Bureau of Investigations (the equivalent of the Australian Federal Police), complained on ABC radio that the AFP had not provided sufficient information when requesting the help of his organisation in finding Alvarez in the Philippines. In a statement released on 17 May, the Philippines embassy in Canberra harshly criticised the Australian authorities for their handling of the Alvarez case.

WHILE FEW PEOPLE in the Philippines may be aware of the Jurados’s feted arrival in 2002, many more would recall the case of another Filipino who ran foul of Australian immigration policies more than half a century ago. Lorenzo Gamboa had served with the American forces in the Philippines. When his country was occupied by the Japanese, he was evacuated to Australia. On a Melbourne train he met Joyce Cain, a young woman from Brunswick who was working in a biscuit factory. They fell in love and were married in 1943. Subsequently Gamboa took part in the American military’s push north. The end of the war found him in Japan. In November 1945, he was discharged and joined his wife and baby son in Melbourne. The following year, his presence in Australia attracted the attention of the newly formed Department of Immigration, which ordered him as well as other Asians who had come to Australia during the war to leave the country. Gamboa did not wait to be deported and went to the US, rejoining the army and becoming an American citizen in the mistaken belief that he would now be able to obtain a visa for Australia.

At the end of 1948, by then serving on General Douglas MacArthur’s personal staff, Gamboa applied for permission to enter Australia through the Australian mission in Tokyo. The immigration department not only refused his application to settle in Australia but also rejected a subsequent request for a visitor’s visa to see his wife and children (a daughter had been born in 1947). An intervention by General MacArthur, protests by the Philippines government and representations by Australian diplomats were to no avail.

Joyce Gamboa accepted neither the immigration department’s decision nor an offer to pay her fare to meet her husband outside Australia, and enlisted the help of sympathetic newspaper editors to fight the department and its minister, Labor’s Arthur Calwell. The Gamboa case became a cause celebre: it was widely reported, and debated at length in parliament. While Calwell remained firm, the leaders of the Liberal Party indicated that they would not enforce the White Australia policy at all costs should they win government. After the ALP lost the elections of late 1949, Calwell’s successor in the immigration portfolio, Harold Holt, granted a visa to Lorenzo Gamboa. He joined his wife in 1952 and has lived in Australia ever since.

The quite considerable publicity generated in Australia by Joyce Gamboa’s campaign to have her husband admitted to Australia paled in comparison to the storm that erupted in the Philippines after Calwell’s refusal to grant Lorenzo Gamboa a visa became public. The parliament in Manila passed a bill, the Reciprocity Immigration Bill, which, if it had been enacted, would have prevented Australians from entering the Philippines.

Long after Gamboa had been admitted to Australia, Filipinos continued to associate Australia with racist immigration policies. In 1957, Australia’s ambassador in Manila, Keith Shann, wrote: ‘I should like to report my distress at the number of occasions on which [Gamboa’s] name was raised during my recent trip to the South. I think this is indicative of the fact that people outside Manila have failed to become increasingly aware of Australia, as they have in the capital. The only things, therefore, that they seem to know, are our behaviour on the Gamboa case, and the fact that we provide them with a certain amount of meat and flour.’ Shann predicted that ‘hostility to us on racial grounds... could be expected to be uncomfortable if similar cases were to arise in the future’.

Another seven years later, in 1964, Ambassador T.W. Cutts wrote in a despatch to the Department of External Affairs: ‘Reporting from this post has frequently mentioned the starring role that Sergeant Gamboa still plays in Philippine mythology, and his unfortunate influence on Australia’s image among the Philippine masses.’ Having been ‘confronted with this popular if misunderstood character by almost everybody I meet, from near-naked tribesmen to important government officials and congressional personalities’, Cutts suggested that his department prepare a leaflet presenting Australia’s side of the story and drawing attention to the fact that it had a happy ending.

External Affairs rejected Cutts’s proposal out of fear that such publicity material would only draw attention to Australia’s restricted immigration policies. But that did not mean that Australia was spared more bad publicity over these policies, for soon the Gamboa case was to be again frequently invoked in Manila newspapers. Shann’s 1957 prediction came true in early 1966, when it became known that the immigration department had rejected the application of the Philippines citizen Aurelio Locsin to migrate to Australia. Locsin was a banker with two university degrees, but he fell outside the categories of people eligible to enter Australia for residence.

The immigration department’s decision rested on two assumptions: first, that he was non-European, and second, that Locsin’s qualifications were not sufficient to warrant his inclusion in the category of ‘highly distinguished’ non-Europeans and therefore allow for his admission under the non-European rules. The first assumption was by no means self-evident. Many Filipinos intent on migrating to Australia considered themselves mestizos (on account of their Spanish racial heritage) and therefore rejected the label non-European. From September 1964, if classified by the Australian immigration authorities as people of mixed descent, they would not have had to meet the exclusive criteria of the non-European policy, but would have been permitted to enter Australia if they possessed useful skills and if their successful integration had seemed assured. But in 1965, the immigration department had advised the Australian embassy in Manila: ‘Whilst, of course, acknowledging that there would be some small degree of European descent in a good many Filipinos, experience over the years in this department has not indicated that this is apparent in the great majority of cases or even in a significant minority. It has come to be accepted that Filipinos are “non-Europeans”, not “people of mixed race”. The minister for immigration has directed that this should continue to be accepted for our purposes.’

Locsin was acquainted with an influential journalist, and his case was taken up by the papers in the Philippines and in Australia. There was talk of retribution, including a cutting of diplomatic ties. The Philippines government did not take any such drastic action, but sponsored a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which condemned ‘racial discrimination in all its forms wherever it exists’ and appealed ‘to member States to take urgent and effective measures for its complete elimination’. While the resolution did not mention Australia by name, the Philippines delegate made it clear that his government resented the White Australia policy, in particular.

Once again, immigration had become by far the most prominent issue in Philippines-Australian relations. That in March 1966, less than two months after news of the Locsin case broke in the Philippines, the Australian government relaxed the entry criteria for non-European immigrants, seemed to have had as little immediate effect on public opinion in the Philippines as Harold Holt’s invitation to Lorenzo Gamboa had had 16 years earlier. ‘After four months here it looks to me as though my mission’s main concern is going to be this immigration question,’ an Australian diplomat wrote in September 1966. ‘To most Filipinos it seems to be the only thing that matters.’ Likewise, it is unlikely that the return of Alvarez to Australia will put an end to public indignation in the Philippines and speculations that there was more to her deportation than administrative bungling.

Once one looks beyond the fanfare with which the arrival of Cristina Jurado was greeted in 2002 and takes a longer view of Australian-Philippines relations and of Filipino immigration, the comments made by Cicile Solon and the Philippines embassy in Canberra do not seem to be out of place. It is useful to recall the Gamboa and Locsin cases if only to understand the crucial role immigration has played in Australia’s relationship with the Philippines and appreciate the sensitivities of the Philippines authorities, media and general public in the case of Alvarez. It is often forgotten that immigration is not just an Australian story but also one that involves, and belongs to, the migrants’ countries of origin.

Seen from afar, Australia may sometimes resemble a frightened echidna inward-looking and hostile to the outside world. In the extensive media coverage of the Alvarez case there has been surprisingly little mention of either a historical context or of the reactions in the Philippines, as if it did no longer matter what our neighbours think of us. Incidentally, previous governments were acutely aware of the legacy of the Gamboa and Locsin cases in the Philippines; when the late Al Grassby announced the end of the White Australia policy in 1973, he saved his most evocative remarks for a public appearance in the Philippines where he declared the policy dead and demanded a shovel to bury it once and for all.

It is also useful to recall the Gamboa and Locsin cases to draw attention to historical continuities and discontinuities, and affinities between the present and the past. Do the circumstances of Alvarez’s deportation demonstrate that little has changed since Calwell’s days and that she would have been treated differently had she been white, as her sister has suggested? Is her deportation perhaps evidence of a historical continuity reaching from the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 to the immigration department’s campaign to detect and deport ‘unlawful non-citizens’, and to mandatory detention in 2005? No: the case of Cornelia Rau, a blonde German-born woman who spent ten months in immigration detention even though she was a long-time permanent resident of Australia, suggests that officers in the department’s Border Control and Compliance division, while not colour-blind, are not focusing their efforts solely on non-Europeans. Racism may sometimes play a role in the implementation of the government’s policy to detect, detain and deport unlawful non-citizens, but it is not its defining feature.

But there are fascinating affinities between the approach to immigration and border control that was responsible for Alvarez’s deportation, and the approach that guided Calwell in his decision to refuse a visa to Lorenzo Gamboa. (Here, the issue is not that Alvarez was wrongfully deported as she was an Australian citizen, but that her deportation proceeded despite her medical condition; her deportation was not only the result of administrative bungling but, more importantly, also the product of the smooth operation of a system that provides for the lawful detention and deportation of children regardless of the impact on the individual child.) Under Chifley as much as under Howard, the authorities did not countenance exceptions to the rule.

Between 1945 and 1949, the rules were far more based on ministerial instructions than on legislation, but both then and now, the government claimed that their relaxation for humanitarian reasons would set in motion a chain of catastrophic events. During a parliamentary debate about the planned deportation of Annie O’Keefe, an Indonesian woman married to a British national, Calwell said in February 1949: ‘We can have a white Australia, we can have a black Australia, but a mongrel Australia is impossible, and I shall not take the first steps to establish the precedents which will allow the flood gates to be opened.’

Both in the late 1940s and in recent years, government representatives have talked about compassion as a luxury Australia can ill afford. Commenting on Joyce Gamboa’s request to let her husband join her in Australia, Calwell said at a public meeting just before the 1949 election: ‘If I used my heart in these matters I would not interfere with these Asiatics but, after all, as a responsible minister, I have to use my head.’

Calwell may have been appalled by Ruddock’s decision to welcome the Jurados in 2002, and may have associated ‘multiculturalism and cultural diversity’ with precisely the mongrel Australia that he had fought so hard to prevent. But he would probably have been heartened by Ruddock’s resolve not to allow precedents that could be seen to compromise Australia’s border protection and immigration policies, and to make the rules as immune to challenges in the courts as possible.

Notwithstanding his dismay at the abolition of the White Australia policy, Calwell may have also applauded current migrant selection criteria, which privilege young English-speaking systems analysts over aged parents. Only once before have Australia’s criteria been as selective and strict as they are now: at the very beginning of Australia’s postwar mass migration program, when the government decreed that there needed to be 70 workers among every 100 migrants sponsored by the IRO. The immigration department’s admission of the Jurados is not incompatible with the activities of its Compliance and Border Protection division, but is its flipside as much as the recruitment of young, able-bodied, blond and blue-eyed migrants from the Baltic states was the flipside of the merciless enforcement of the White Australia policy in the late 1940s.

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