Immigrants have always provided an easy target for populist politicians.

Donald Trump built his presidential campaign around the idea that illegal immigrants were the cause of America's woes.

Now he has acted on that idea, bluntly and with chilling consequences for many innocent people whose only crime seems to be coming from a country he does not favour.

Meanwhile, in the UK fear about open borders with Europe was one of the drivers of public support for the Brexit.


It is vital that New Zealand doesn't follow this path towards radical policy change based on unfounded fears.

This country has been experiencing record immigration.

The gain of more than 70,000 long-term arrivals in the year to November surpasses the raw numbers arriving at the height of the colonial era in the 19th century.

In per capita terms our net migration gains are now running ahead of levels the UK has seen in the past several years.

So there is something to talk about. The face of New Zealand is changing.

But there is an ever-present risk of xenophobia and outright racism in raising this debate.

To point the finger at immigrants themselves for the pressures that population change may bring is either lazy or cynical.

New Zealand is an immigrant nation. It's history has been built on embracing the ideas and energy of new arrivals.

Neither though should the issue be a sacred cow.

Changing population patterns and trends have a meaningful impact on our lives, culture and the world around us.

You only have to look to its impact on Maori in the 19th century to see how dramatic the effects of mass immigration can be.

Like all social and economic policy, immigration rules need to remain live and open for debate.

If we suppress fears and concerns then we risk fuelling greater discontent and enabling those who would use them to stoke more radical responses.

The trick is surely to focus on the policy not the people.

It seems fitting then, at a time when we celebrate both Waitangi Day and the Chinese New Year, that the New Zealand Initiative has released its comprehensive review of immigration policy in this country.

The business friendly think tank's report - The New New Zealanders - does an admirable job of treading through this minefield.

It recognises the fears some New Zealanders have about immigrants taking jobs, suppressing wage growth and pushing up house prices.

But it concludes that economic fears about immigration are largely overblown.

There is little solid evidence that immigration is to blame for these things.

As the report's authors note, most economists see immigration as a positive for wealth creation - a win win.

However, given New Zealand's historically open immigration stance - there is a remarkable lack of empirical research available on its social and economic impacts, either good or bad.

That makes dealing with concerns about its effect on issues like our housing market difficult to debate.

There seems to be good grounds for more Government research on the issue. Just as there are good grounds to debate current policy in the coming general election.

But we should be wary of politicians who look to make gains by targeting any one segment of our population based primarily on who they are and where they come from.

New Zealand should strive to be better than that. We have a chance to show the world there is another path.