Labour and NZ First came to power on the promise of cutting immigration. Covid-19 has granted them their wish, but they’re discovering just how difficult a task it is even when international travel has been shut down.

ANALYSIS: A raft of changes show the Government is under pressure to sort out its immigration issues quickly.

However, the small exceptions it squeezed out last week are unlikely to put an end to them.

Primary industries have reportedly lobbied Labour and NZ First for industry-based exemptions to get workers in their industries re-classified as “critical” so they can get them through the border. 

The Greens in turn have pushed back on this idea saying assistance for migrants in specific industries shouldn’t be prioritised over being fair to others with a stronger humanitarian case.

Our country currently has limited quarantining capacity – much of it still taken up by returning New Zealand citizens – so is having to make sharp trade-offs on who should be allowed through. Every one person let through effectively means another can’t enter.

Green Party immigration spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said there needed to be an urgent prioritisation of people with humanitarian cases (she included temporary migrants who usually resided here in this category) rather than ad-hoc exceptions for different industries. And it needed to happen before the election.

“It has actually come to a point where people are in crisis. And even employers are in crisis.”

Dairy worker exception fails, but another succeeds

Migrants on temporary visas who found themselves on the wrong side of the border when it was closed had no ability to return to their apartments, possessions, friends and jobs because they were not permanent residents or citizens.

Some have lived here for up to a decade.

At the beginning of last week it looked like some of these migrants on temporary visas (those in the dairy sector who wanted to re-enter the country) had again failed to secure themselves any way of getting back.

Newsroom reported that an expected announcement the week before did not materialise. Shortly afterwards, dairy industry workers on temporary visas started receiving declines for critical worker border exceptions from Immigration New Zealand (INZ).

Golriz Ghahraman says we need to prioritise people according to their humanitarian needs. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

These decisions had been on hold for weeks while talks between the government parties and ministries continued.

“We apologise for the delay getting back to you regarding this request,” INZ said in emails sent after the aborted announcement.

“Employer requests for workers in dairy farm management roles were placed on hold for a number of weeks while the Ministry for Primary Industries and Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment discussed proposals to introduce a new category of exception to border restrictions specifically for workers in dairy farm management roles.

“It has now been determined that a new exception category will not be introduced at this time, and only those workers meeting the general criteria in place for ‘other critical workers’ will be considered for exceptions.”

‘Top of the pyramid’

Shortly after dairy workers received these emails, another announcement came through indicating the much-criticised stasis appeared to have eased.

The Government put out a flurry of announcements last week introducing a much-called-for easing of restrictions on returning temporary migrants and others.

They announced a change to the definition of a critical worker, changes around the rules for returning partners allowing more people from ‘visa waiver’ countries through, and an extension of resident visas.

National Party immigration spokesman Stuart Smith said he was disappointed the changes had come through so late.

The Government had given itself the power to make those changes months before. And legislation was rushed through Parliament under urgency.

“They sat on it. They haven’t done anything on it up until now,” Smith said.

On the face of it, last week’s announcements sounded substantial, but the clue to how narrow they were could be seen in the total number of people affected by them.

National MP Stuart Smith says the Government took too long to come up with the changes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In June, INZ estimated 10,062 temporary migrants were stuck outside the country who would have ordinarily been resident here. Last week’s announcement on a path forward for temporary workers only affected 850 of them. 

One way that list had been narrowed down was by focusing on holders of the Essential Skills Visa (a type of visa tied to an employer).

It excluded people on ‘post-study’ work visas who actually had open work rights to find employers after they finish studying over here. 

Another caveat was that if your work visa was set to expire before the end of the year you must have renewed it before August 10 to qualify for these exemptions.

Into NZ immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said many hadn’t done this because INZ closed off its visa processing facilities.

“It’s definitely the top of the pyramid that they’ve sliced off.”

Slicing the numbers

Changes were also made to address the odd situation where New Zealanders with overseas partners were having to fly overseas and then fly back with them so they could enter the country.

Now partners of New Zealanders will be able to fly back on their own if they come from a ‘visa waiver’ country. 

Earlier immigration rules only allowed the non-resident partners of New Zealanders to get through the borders if they were flying in with their partners.

While some changes to the rules were made in June to fix it, the problem remained unsolved because many of the partners stuck overseas weren’t on partnership-based visas.

“We just can’t pretend…that we were just – out of the goodness of our hearts – letting all these migrants come here and take advantage of our standard of living. They were providing that standard of living.”

Thanks to one of last week’s announcements, partners of New Zealand residents who aren’t resident and don’t have a partnership visa here can enter the country without their partners if they live in a ‘visa waiver’ country. 

Visa waiver countries aren’t really correlated with Covid-19 risk. For example, both the United States of America and Brazil are on the waiver list.

However, drawing that distinction does continue to continue to lock out partners of New Zealand residents stuck in countries like India, the Philippines, and China.

Since we draw a lot of temporary migrants from these countries, they are also likely to make up a disproportionate share of the migrant partners who are locked out.

This change limits the number of partners who will be able to make it through the border without their own partners having to fly out to get them. 

Critical worker exception 

More importantly for industry, the definition of critical worker has been expanded to make it easier for their workers to secure a critical worker exemption. 

Armstrong said an earlier distinction in the criteria required critical workers to have skills that were “unobtainable” which was a high bar to meet.

“They were saying that skillset must not exist in New Zealand … [for example] you couldn’t say there are not enough vets.

“You had to prove you had a unique skillset like being a giraffe vet.”

Armstrong said employers would now just need to prove these skills weren’t readily available here. 

“This is just letting out the rope a teeny tad.

“They’re saying let’s change that: ‘not obtainable’ means ‘not readily available’.”

Ghahraman said all of this showed the country couldn’t shut its borders completely to migration. 

“We just can’t pretend like that’s something that we can do and that we were just – out of the goodness of our hearts – letting all these migrants come here and take advantage of our standard of living.

“They were providing that standard of living.”

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