Written by Yu-chin Tseng.
Immigration is an important issue. It forms a major component of election platforms and influences voting in many countries. In the UK, Brexit was heavily shaped by migration and border control issues. In the US, immigration policy is Donald Trump’s signature issue. In Germany, refugee, asylum and immigration topics have dominated politics since the opening of borders to refugees in 2015. However, these issues are still new to Taiwanese voters and were never core parts of party platforms in Taiwanese elections. The 2020 presidential election might yet be the first time that immigration is front and centre at an election in Taiwan. So, where do the two major party presidential candidates stand on immigration and what are their policies?
The Rising Importance of Immigration to Elections
Both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) candidates have proposed new measures to address ‘new immigrants’ – the official term for marriage immigrants in Taiwan – whom now amount to 550,000. Of these new immigrants, 270,000 are eligible voters, half of whom are originally from China; the others are mainly from Vietnam and Indonesia.
In the 2016 election a naturalised Taiwanese citizen of Cambodian descent, Lin Li-chan, won a seat in the Legislative Yuan through proportional representation (PR), becoming the very first legislator who migrated to Taiwan through marriage. Having the first and only new immigrant legislator on its side, the KMT has over the past four years presented itself as the legitimate representative of the growing community of settled migrants and their children.
The DPP now also has a naturalised Taiwanese citizen running for election in the fourth position on their PR party list. Meanwhile, the KMT has only two PR candidates, both of whom are originally from China. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the KMT will get enough party votes to guarantee successful election.
Compared with the KMT, the DPP has come later to new immigrant issues. Some KMT legislators have worked on issues of marriage migrants from China for over two decades, especially on improving their social rights and fighting against discriminatory regulations induced by anti-China resentment.
In contrast, the DPP has focused more on the rights and social welfare of marriage immigrants from Southeast Asia, aligning with Tsai Ing-wen’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) which aims to promote social and cultural connections between Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan. The NSP has made new immigrants and their children’s connections with Southeast Asian countries and relevant language abilities valuable. After establishing the NSP in 2015, Tsai indicated that she would work towards providing equal social welfare, the recognition of foreign education diplomas, and enabling the second generation to learn their mother languages at school.
The DPP also proposed in 2018 an amendment of the University Act to allow naturalised new immigrants to enter university without being affected by the existing recruitment regulations. The amendment has recently passed and naturalised foreign spouses will qualify for special status together with foreign students, overseas Chinese, mainland Chinese students and others. This amendment resolves the discrepancy between the recognition of naturalised new immigrants as Taiwanese citizens by the University Act and the non-recognition of most of their diplomas by the Ministry of Education, which hindered new immigrants from enrolling in Taiwanese universities.
Tsai’s current immigration policies for the 2020 election are: providing funds for the development of new immigrants, setting up the Industry-Academia Collaboration Program for second generation immigrants, and deepening and expanding the implementation of the mother-tongue language education at school.
Tsai also criticised Han Kuo-yu’s ‘Nine Immigration Policies’ platform, indicating that five out of the nine points he made have already been implemented by the DPP government. In response, Han’s office accused Tsai of stealing credit from former President Ma Ying-jeou’s government by claiming the continuation and extension of Ma’s policies as her own.
Leaving aside the war of words, Han indeed proposed a new measure, to launch a ‘New Immigrant Council’ under the Executive Yuan, and nominated KMT proportional representative Lin Li-chan as the convener. The setting up of this council will raise the status of new immigrant issues to be on par with those of existing councils such as the Mainland Affairs, Indigenous Peoples, Hakka Affairs, and Overseas Community Affairs.
Han also proposed allowing pregnant new immigrants to join the National Health Insurance (NHI) system sooner. Currently, all non-citizens are required to reside in Taiwan for six months before qualifying to join the program, except foreign employees (including migrant workers), who are eligible to join the NHI from the first day of employment. It could be argued that this new policy is unfair for non-pregnant foreign spouses. However, reactions to Han’s proposal were disproportionally focused on Chinese pregnant women. The Green Party censured Han’s policy of ‘selling out the Taiwanese NHI’ and indicated that ‘pregnant women from the PRC will come to Taiwan to enjoy immediate NHI service’. There will thus be ‘long queues for medical examinations and milk powder will be sold out’, implying that the proposed policy will allow Chinese pregnant women to come to Taiwan and abuse the NHI. These claims deliberately ignored the fact that the change would apply to foreign and PRC pregnant spouses, which does not include pregnant Chinese women whose husbands are not Taiwanese. The reaction to Han’s policy shows the difficulty of advancing immigration policies, shadowed as they are by anti-China sentiment.
As more and more new immigrants are becoming eligible voters, political parties are realizing the electoral importance of addressing new immigrants and their needs. However, it is unclear whether immigration policies in Taiwan and the policy ‘beef’ that the politicians propose for the 2020 election could facilitate real integration. Tsai’s policy focuses on new immigrants from Southeast Asian countries as they fit within the interests of the NSP. However, the overconcentration on new immigrants’ cultural and linguistic connections with their countries of origin will strengthen the image of new immigrants as foreign spouses or the children of foreign mothers and thereby strengthen the separation between them and Taiwanese citizens.
Immigration policies brought forward so far concern only new immigrants and their children, while the other immigrant issues, such as the Refugee Act, remain out of sight. The Refugee Act has remained under review for over ten years due to the disputes over the handling of PRC refugees. This can be seen as another example of anti-China resentment that continues to shadow immigration issues.
Last but not least, the DPP government has proposed the New Economic Immigration Act, which is currently under review. The Act aims to attract high-skilled workers, investors, overseas Chinese and most significantly, middle-skilled workers. The act responds to labour market demands to fill workforce shortages, especially technicians and care workers. If passed, this act will allow current migrant workers to stay for longer periods and will provide rights long neglected. Yet, the low thresholds of the investment visa and permanent residency might cause future controversy.
Yu-chin Tseng is Assistant Professor in Modern Taiwan Studies, Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Tübingen and Co-Director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT).
From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.