When MP Erica Stanford rose to speak in a debate last week, immigrants in the public galleries burst into applause.
She spoke passionately with just a few notes at hand about the plight of the hundreds if not thousands of people she has met since becoming immigration shadow minister seven months ago, especially the ones separated from their families.
The backbench of the Labour Party interjected and accused her of politicising their plight and using the immigrants.She gave as good as she got.
It has been quite the transformation for the East Coast Bays MP, now in her second term of Parliament, and although the Government is cynical about the cause, there is no doubt she is blooming.
Despite being low ranked – 26th out of 33 – she is now one of National’s best performing MPs armed with formidable detail about immigration rules, a bit of political experience, hard work and heartbreaking stories.
Last term she asked one question during question time as Associate Environment spokeswoman; this term she puts Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi through his paces in the House.
She is an avowed liberal in the caucus and like most liberals last term, is thought to have supported the coup against Simon Bridges by Todd Muller, who resigned after 53 days.
Stanford says she asked National leader Judith Collins for the immigration portfolio and it was a natural choice.
“I’m the daughter of a migrant who came to New Zealand when he was 5 and didn’t have any English.”
Stanford’s grandfather was a chemical engineer who ended up working on low wages at the Post and Telegraph. The Poppelbaums, who hailed from the Netherlands, arrived in 1952. Erica Stanford’s father went on to become an Air New Zealand pilot.
“We often get people in this country whom we consider – and I hate the word – but we often call them ‘low value’ but theywork hard and they have incredible work ethics and that goes through to their children.”
In her experience, immigrants had a strong work ethic because they were forced to by circumstance.
“They are starting a new life. There is always that sword of Damocles hanging over them. They have got to keep working hard to stay here to get their residence and they do – they know this is a new chance, a new life and they do work very, very hard.”
Stanford grew up in East Coast Bays and married her childhood sweetheart from Rangitoto College, Kane Stanford, and they have two children, aged 13 and 8.
Stanford got experience on immigration cases as the electorate agent for four years for her predecessor, Murray McCully.
“These people were quite vulnerable. They didn’t have any rights. They didn’t know the system. Sometimes they couldn’t speak English very well and they would often make mistakes or get themselves in trouble and just being able to help them and change their lives was so rewarding.
So what would she change if she were Immigration Minister?
She would sort out the backlog of applicants since the skilled migrant category was frozen last year;She would reunite the split families she has been working with for the past seven months who have been separated by border closures and she would allow the older children of people in the queue for residency, those aged 18 and 19, to work.
At present those older children were in limbo, not being allowed to work, and not being able to afford the international fees to attend university.
“Right now the top priority for New Zealand is to make this country the most desirable place for migrants to want to come to because if we want the best migrants, which we do, the most skilled, the ones that have a lot to offer our economy and our society, we need to be their best option and right now, we are far from that.”
She does not accept the premise in the Government’s scene-setting immigration speech this week that too many low-value immigrants have been allowed in who have suppressed wages.
Sectors such as health care, agriculture and hospitality sectors still desperately needed workers because they could not find people in New Zealand to do that work.
So why does she think she was applauded when she got up to speak?
“I’ve been talking to these different split migrant groups for months. I’ve attended all of their rallies. I have thousands of emails in my inbox of people telling me their story and I try to respond as many as I can.”
She spoke to about 20 or 30 a week on the phone.
When Government MPs accused her of using immigrants, she said she was furious.
“This is personal, it is not political. I am the daughter of a migrant.”
The Government announcedexceptions recently to rectify the split family anomaly thrown up by the border closure. If Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had spoken to the hundreds of people she had, she is convinced the Government would change their policies.
“You just can’t be not moved by this. It is bloody horrific. It is just awful splitting these people apart. It is so wrong. It is not a left or right issue. I am not doing it for political gain. “
But is she in danger of getting too close to her cases?
“You might be right. I am quite close to this but I can’t turn away. I cannot turn away. How can you turn away from their grief and their anxiety and their stress? A lot of them have terrible mental health problems and are beside themselves because they haven’t seen their partners and their children.
“I can’t turn away turn away from that. I can’t walk away. I can’t not scream from every rooftop, every chance I get to give these guys a road map to reunification so they can see their families again.”
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