Families split by tightening of immigration and border restrictions are calling for a review of partnership visa criteria

Adam Gibbons hasn’t seen his fiancée for almost 18 months, and he’s yet to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s why he was outside Parliament on Monday, protesting what he believes is shabby treatment by the New Zealand Government of people seeking partnership visas.

Thousands of Kiwi couples are forcibly divided not just by Covid border restrictions, but also by a stringent definition of ‘relationship’ and a Government steadily reducing pathways into the country.

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The 50,000 temporary visa applications deleted by Immigration New Zealand last month included many people trying to come to New Zealand to rejoin partners and families.

However, immigration activists want to know why children’s entertainers and sports people are allowed through when Kiwi residents’ loved ones are left out in the cold.

Gibbons first met his fiancée five years ago, when she came to Wellington from the Phillipines to study to be a chef.

After she temporarily returned to the Philippines to help out her family, Gibbons made the trip across the world to see her almost every month – until lockdown put a stop to it.

He spent almost four months in total with her in the year leading up to lockdown.

However, this falls short of what Immigration New Zealand needs to consider them a ‘stable and genuine’ couple.

“We’re in a position where we just don’t know what to do,” said Gibbons.

His fiancée’s application for the visa was lodged in March of 2020, just before the global pandemic shut New Zealand’s borders and seemingly froze all applications.

“We got nothing from Immigration New Zealand before the borders closed,” said Gibbons. “It was just sitting there, with no correspondence from them. Eventually we got the standard response about protecting the borders and public safety.”

But Gibbons and the others in his position see public safety as an excuse.

“They can say the border is closed all they like, but we know that’s not the case if you’ve got a big fat wallet,” said Gibbons. “We know Labour campaigned to get net migration down before the election.”

Green Party spokesperson for immigration Ricardo Menéndez March said Labour hasn’t done enough to provide ways for people to be reunited, and suggested this could be done without compromising public safety.

Firstly, the inequities around border exemptions could be addressed.

“If you are from a non-visa waiver country like India, it is much harder for you to get in then if you are from somewhere like the US,” he said. “These come from long-held policies rooted in racism and ideas like the global north and south.”

“They’ve put money before people in a very bizarre skewing of what we all thought were this Government’s values.”
– Katy Armstrong, immigration adviser

Next, he wants a reassessment of partnership visa criteria, which he called archaic, stringent and unable to meet the needs of queer and interfaith relationships. “Many people don’t live together until marriage,” he said. “The assessment we use to define relationships is very narrow.”

March also floated a review of the MIQ system and suggested space could be made to reunite these couples. “The system should give humanitarian issues more priority,” he said.

Although Gibbons and fellow protest organiser and immigration adviser Katy Armstrong were happy a range of MPs such as Menéndez March, Chris Bishop and Erica Stanford showed up, the absence of any MPs from the Labour Party was noticeable.

“The Government that we so hoped would listen, be kind and would meaningfully engage has blocked us at every turn,” said Armstrong. “Even today, though invited, there is not a single Labour MP that has accepted the invitation.”

Armstrong said the Government needs to speak with those directly impacted.

“It’s as if they actively want to make sure these people are marginalised,” she said. “Perhaps in case their stories actually penetrate their souls.”

And with 3500 people in a Facebook group called ‘NZ Citizens And PR’s Separated from Partners by NZ Border Closure’, there are plenty of these stories to hear.

Alpa Desai is one of these thousands. She and her partner have been in a relationship for seven years – but with the majority of it having been long-distance, they say Immigration New Zealand doesn’t want to hear about it.

Green Party spokesperson for immigration Ricardo Menéndez March – here speaking at the protest on Tuesday – says Immigration NZ needs new culturally competent criteria for what constitutes a relationship. Photo: Supplied

She pointed out the absurdity of this narrow view of relationships, where physical proximity takes precedence over anything else.

“They said we are in a genuine, stable relationship, but because we hadn’t lived together, he couldn’t come in,” she said. “How does that prove you are in a relationship? You could be flatmates!”

For now, time differences and busy work schedules mean the only connection she gets to have with her partner back in India is through Skype on the weekends.

“The anxiety levels have kept on rising,” she said. “There’s just so much frustration.”

The activists have started a fund to pay for legal action challenging Immigration New Zealand’s decision to lapse all general visitor visas lodged by partners who cannot live together off-shore and to suspend the ability to make new visa applications.

Armstrong believes this is a matter of our border policies reflecting the values of our society.

“Reuniting couples and families should be out front before any more sports people, film crews, entertainers or investors come in who have no prior connection with New Zealand,” she said. “To date, they’ve put money before people in a very bizarre skewing of what we all thought were this Government’s values.”

Much of the frustration comes from the Government’s unwillingness to communicate or help, the activists said.

“The minister has the legislative power to make these kinds of changes due to the pandemic,” said Gibbons. “I’m not sure what the point of giving that power to him was, though – he hasn’t used it.”

Desai believes the problem could be solved relatively easily, and isn’t sure why the Government won’t do it.    

“If they wanted, the Government could fix this with a snap of their fingers.”

She said opinions are split within the group as to why Immigration New Zealand has neglected them.

“Some think it’s xenophobic,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s just incompetence.”

Xero managing director Craig Hudson said families torn apart by immigration restrictions deserve to be able to make a plan for the future. Photo: Supplied

Craig Hudson, the managing director of accounting software company Xero, said he has seen people across the technology sector impacted by this.

“The tech sector is particularly affected due to a reliance on skilled migrants,” he said.

Although just a few people on his team have been directly affected, it has been “quite an emotional load” on everyone.

The country is already dealing with a shortage of skilled labour, and Hudson said the country risks losing the skilled migrants it does have if such immigration regimes continue.

“We run the risk of people jumping on the plane to leave,” he said. Either to their families or to countries that are more willing to put out the welcome mat.

“There’s a shortage of skilled workers all over.”

Hudson called for empathy for split-up families on a social media post earlier this week.

“For most Kiwis at least one of our foremothers or fathers made the decision to move to New Zealand for a better life for their families,” he wrote. “Now’s the time to extend that offer to everyone in the team of five million, not keep families apart.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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