Immigration Act 1987 Legislative Act


NameImmigration Act 1987


Today, 100 years later, there’s a new wave of Asian immigrants going through the process of settling here and becoming accepted. I made this programme so that old and new migrants could speak about their experiences of making New Zealand their home.

— Helene Wong, 'An Immigrant Nation - The Footprints of the Dragon,' 1994

In 1987, legislative changes transformed the immigration system, allowing more migrants from a wider range of Asian countries to settle in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Prior to this, throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, immigration legislation was designed to restrict Asian people from migrating to Aotearoa. This included a number of laws aimed specifically at potential Chinese immigrants, including the Poll Tax — an entry tax applied only to Chinese arrivals. As a result, Asian immigration was modest and mostly made up of Cantonese and Indian migrants. Cantonese men arrived during the gold mining boom and Cantonese migration continued as Southern China became politically unstable. Until the Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1899, Indian migrants had been able to enter New Zealand as British subjects, during the period of the British Raj (1858 to 1947).

In 1987 the existing system, which favoured immigrants of particular nationalities and ethnic backgrounds (largely UK and Northern European), was replaced with a system based instead on criteria related to education, occupation, age, family connections, and assets — regardless of race or nationality.

This had the effect of allowing higher levels of migrants from Asia to settle in New Zealand in the decades that followed. Researcher Andrew Butcher illustrates this rapid growth with a brief statistic, “in 1991 New Zealand’s Asian population was 2.8 percent; by 2013 it was 10.4 percent.” This meant that more New Zealanders were born overseas, and they were from a greater variety of countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Many of these immigrants moved to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, diversifying the city through new businesses such as restaurants and shops. In 1991, only 5% of Auckland residents identified as having an Asian ethnicity; by 2006, this was 18.9%, and by 2018, it was 28%.

Both the new population and existing Asian communities in New Zealand faced backlash through the 1990s and 2000s — expressed through newspaper articles, personal attacks, and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 1996 election.


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Last updated: 25 February 2024 Suggest an Edit


A newspaper feature with the headline 'The Inv-Asian'.

Pat Booth and Yvonne Martin, 'The Inv-Asian', Auckland City Harbour News, April 16, 1993

Deborah Coddington, 'Asian Angst', North & South, December 2006

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'Tze Ming Mok and others against North & South', New Zealand Media Council ruling, June 11, 2007

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