The line of residency applications waiting to be considered is only getting longer. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A fast-growing backlog of residency applications has some wondering if the Government will be forced to repeat its 2003 ‘wipeout’ of applications to clear the decks. The minister denies he’s planning this, but the pressure is building, Dileepa Fonseka reports.

Kate, originally from the UK, is on a working visa. She is employed in the healthcare industry and, on paper, meets all the criteria for permanent residency. 

In January last year, her application for permanent residency was added to a pile of 9800 others waiting for a decision.

By November last year, that pile had ballooned to over 26,000 applications and Kate was still waiting for an answer.

“I don’t see how they’re going to get through this whole backlog of people but my argument is ‘why do they keep letting people apply?’” she told Newsroom. 

After they lodge expressions of interest (EOIs), migrants are invited to apply for residency, if their applications tick the right boxes.

“If I don’t get it then I’ve got to change my whole life and I’ve worked so hard to call this my home and now you’re like ‘oh well we’ll get around to it’.

Their residency applications then must be approved if they meet the criteria, but there are no set timeframes for how long INZ can take to consider applications.

When Kate asked Immigration in January 2020 for an update, she was told INZ was still processing applications from December 2018. 

“They’re just not doing them…it hasn’t moved since December 2018.”

“I just don’t know how they can treat people like this, it’s massive anxiety and stress.”

“If I don’t get it then I’ve got to change my whole life and I’ve worked so hard to call this my home and now you’re like ‘oh well we’ll get around to it’.”

The build-up of applications on hold since then has some migrants and their lawyers fearful a “draconian” method to wipe out applications from the queue, last employed in the early 2000s, could be used. 

National party spokesman for Immigration Stuart Smith says there are widespread complaints about the delays. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Decisions on skilled migrant residency applications have dropped 25 percent since the coalition Government came to power. That is for both declines and acceptances.

More than 30,000 residency decisions were made in the year to November 2017 but that dropped by 7000 a year later. In the year to November 2019 just over 22,000 decisions were made. Immigration lawyers are now advising clients that they should expect to wait just over a year for applications that previously took three months.

Huge demand for fewer spots

The extra workload on Immigration New Zealand is purely a numbers game because the number of people in New Zealand on temporary work visas and student visas (often with work rights) has more than doubled to nearly 290,000 a year over the last decade under both flavours of Government. Many go on to apply for permanent residency once here, and are often tempted to come to New Zealand by employers and education providers on the grounds their temporary work or student visa provided them a pathway to residency.

Yet both the National-led and Labour-led Governments have reduced the number of planned residency approvals by around 20 percent to around 37,000 a year. That means that back in 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants for 47,000 residency visas: a ratio of 2.65 to one. This year there is the potential for 290,000 applicants for 37,000 permanent places: a ratio of 7.84 to one.

Essentially, New Zealand Inc suggested they come here to work hard (often for low pay) and get a pathway to residency. Their visa documents were even labeled ‘Pathway to Residence’ until mid 2018. 

This combination of many more applicants applying for few spots has put case officers and their managers under huge pressure to reject or park many more applications. It has meant that the average number of skilled permanent residency visas has risen to 3,170 per month in the first 11 months of 2019 from an average of 1,990 per month in the 24 months of 2017 and 2018. Immigration data shows an average of 1,730 skilled work residency approvals per month in 2019. There were 1,674 approvals per month in calendar 2018 and 2,010 per month in 2017 under National (until November).

Applications for permanent work residence visas has risen 59 percent in the last two years, but approvals are running about the same in the last year under Labour as they were in the last year under National.

Applicants in limbo appeal to MPs

National Party spokesman for Immigration Stuart Smith said colleagues on both sides of Parliament had noticed the backlog.

“Every member of Parliament will be getting people through their doors with these stories about their lives being put on hold with these delays,” he said.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said applications were being processed at the “normal rate” and the problem was one of increasing numbers of people applying.

“Processing times have been increasing since 2014 and National ministers did nothing about it. I have focused Immigration New Zealand on getting waiting times down. They’re making progress and report to me weekly,” Lees-Galloway said.

“While many countries have residency waiting times of well over 12 months, we don’t want that. We want to be efficient while ensuring we manage risk and make careful decisions,” he said.

Fast rejections: stalled approvals

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said there had been no slowdown in the number of applications being declined, and they were swiftly processed. The delays came on applications where applicants meet the criteria, he said.

McClymont and others have alleged a ‘go-slow’ on residency applications, claiming the Government is trying to hold back the number of people it grants residency to by processing applications slowly.

INZ has to grant applicants permanent residency if they meet the requirements for it, but there are no laws surrounding how long INZ officers can take to do so.

“It’s like a dam where the pressure is building and building and building because everybody is continuing to apply for skilled migrant visas, but they’re not getting any decisions,” McClymont said.

“I can foresee a disaster happening in the future.”

Courier vans of applications

During the last Labour government in the early 2000s New Zealand faced a sizeable backlog of permanent residency applications. More Kiwis returned home than expected in the wake of the September 11th attacks and an accompanying economic downturn. The then-government then ramped up residency requirements so fewer migrants would be eligible to settle here permanently.

New Zealand has operated a ‘planning range’ of 45,000 to 50,000 residency approvals per year since the early 2000s, and this has often been expressed as a two year range from 90,000 to 100,000. The previous National Government lowered the range to 85,000 to 95,000 for the two years to June 2018, which meant the annual allowance fell from 47,500 to 45,000. The current Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Government lowered that again to between 50,000 to 60,000 for the period from 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2019, effectively lowering the annual rate of 37,000 for the period that expired at the end of June 2018.

The announcement by the Labour Government in 2002 caused courier vans filled with residency applications to land on New Zealand’s door almost overnight as offshore applicants for residency, many of whom didn’t have job offers, rushed to get their forms in so they’d be judged by the older, more lax standards. 

Legally unable to decline applications that met the old criteria but not the new, in 2003 the Clark government “lapsed” them instead, erasing them from the queue at the stroke of a pen. 

“They’re already living here, and if you’re living here already with a work visa you’re committed to the country I guess…you’re going to stay here and stick it out.”

Those applicants could still apply for residency, but they’d have to send in a new application under the new rules. 

The move triggered a successful legal challenge from the New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment. 

But it was a pyrrhic victory for NZAMI, as the law was changed to allow the government full discretion to lapse applications. 

Could Labour do it again?

Lawyer Mark Williams, of Christchurch-based firm Lane Neave, led that legal challenge and said that while it would be easier for a Minister of Immigration to use that power today, it would have much more serious consequences than it did back then. 

“We are in intense international competition for all those people you see on that long-term skills shortages list, your IT specialists, surgeons, there’s a range of occupations on there that the entire world wants,” Williams said.

“If you develop a reputation in an immigration sense of declining and pushing out residency applications made in good faith, or there’s huge delays, then from an international attraction perspective that pushes us back quite a wee way,” he said.

While the pile of applications in the early 2000s were largely made up of unemployed offshore migrants who took a punt on lax immigration standards, today’s applicants were mostly already living and working in New Zealand in jobs where they were needed, Williams said.

“It’s embarrassing for a government to actually lapse applications of people who have made applications in good faith.”

“Back in the early 2000s I could see exactly why they decided to lapse and get rid of them because you couldn’t have 20,000 people coming here with residency visas who couldn’t get jobs.”

Time to “give up”?

Lees-Galloway said “there is no plan to lapse applicants on the waiting list”. 

“Residency policy is an important one and should not be rushed, nor should it be simplistically based on a number, but flexible and adaptable for our future needs in the best interests of New Zealand,” Lees-Galloway said via an emailed statement.

Anu Kaloti, spokeswoman for the Migrant Workers Association said current immigration policy seemed to be based on the hope that “people will get frustrated, give up some day and leave, and they will just get replaced with a new batch of temporary migrants”. 

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says he has no plans to lapse residency applications. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

‘Left in long-term limbo’

“Whichever party is in power they need to acknowledge the fact that there’s people here who have been here five years, ten years, easily, and they keep going from one temporary visa to the next in the hope one day they will become permanent residents here,” Kaloti said.

Kate, who didn’t want her surname published for fear it might delay her application even more, now faces the prospect of her visa expiring before she gets a residency decision back. She also can’t lose her job, or change employers, within that time.

“There’ll be thousands of people whose visas expire this year so what do they do? It’s just such a mess,” Kate said.

“Obviously it’s crossed my mind whether I should just give up and just say I want my money back and try Australia or something else,” she said.

“But it’s like I’ve worked so hard to call this my home. I’ve paid my application fee. I’ve worked so hard at my job: why should I give up?”

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