By David Hall

Migrants once came to this country on a promise of "fair field and no favour". There can be no pretence that New Zealand offers a "fair go" for all migrants today.

The National Government is building an unfair border between migrants who earn less and those who earn more.

From August 28, temporary work visa holders who earn under $41,538 will need to leave the country every three years for a "stand-down period".

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Also, their partners and children will no longer be able to join them in New Zealand unless they are eligible for visas in their own right, or rely on short-term visitor visas.

Let's imagine how this could play out. Imagine a community of second-class non-citizens living in New Zealand on poorly-paid jobs, unable to make long-term plans that involve the places and communities they work in.

These people will be separated from family, with little incentive to participate in local communities when they will soon be forced to leave. They will have little standing in society, little power to improve their working or living conditions.

This is likely to produce the very opposite of what New Zealanders expected of migrants in the past: that they integrate into society and, eventually, become loyal citizens. But this is the Government's objective.

A discussion document from April states clearly that the purpose of the policy changes is "ensuring that migrants with no pathway to residence do not become well settled in New Zealand".

I repeat, "do not become well settled". Once upon a time, a pathway to residence was the point of migration. You came here, you demonstrated your value to society and your reward was a secure life in Godzone.

Today, migration policy is being designed to ensure that poorly paid temporary workers are unsettled, that their lives are insecure and precarious. This can't be good for anyone.

Obviously it is unfair on migrants who earn less than the income threshold. But it's likely to be unfair on New Zealand citizens and long-term residents too, especially those also earning less than $41,538.

Low-paying jobs in hospitality, care work, security, agriculture and so on will adapt to this transient workforce, focusing on extracting labour in the short-term rather than long term skill development and career progression. Good workers and institutional knowledge will be lost, and relationships severed.

Following feedback from the public consultation process, the Government did lower the threshold. The original proposal was the New Zealand median income of $48,859, now it is 85 per cent of this.

Official language describes this income threshold as a boundary between lower- and mid-skilled migrants, which might sometimes hold true.

But when New Zealand has for years struggled to ensure new migrants enter jobs that reflect their qualifications, we should be cautious.

Any prejudices against a new migrant's ethnicity or language skills that creates obstacles in the job market will now be amplified, creating new obstacles to becoming a member of the New Zealand community.

Migration expert Francis Collins from the University of Auckland has argued that New Zealand migration policy increasingly resembles a "guest worker programme", such as those he researches in South Korea and Singapore.

I lived in Singapore briefly and saw migrant workers being shuttled around the city, crammed onto the backs of flatbed trucks.

It struck me as a tale of two nations: the wealth of Singapore's citizens built on the backs of undervalued, unprotected migrants. That segregation, that unfairness, struck me as very different to the meritocratic spirit of New Zealand. And yet here we are.

• David Hall, a senior researcher at The Policy Observatory, AUT University, is the editor of Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, published by Bridget Williams Books.