Labelled the biggest change to immigration policy in decades, a new one-off visa will make 165,000 people stuck here in limbo eligible for residency.
Migrants have been promised a fast track to residency within a year through a new one-off pathway opening this December.
On Thursday morning, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced the immigration pathway would fast-track permanent residence for migrants on most work-related visas, including essential skills, work to residence, and post-study work visas and their immediate family members.
Immigration NZ estimated this would include at least 5000 health and aged care workers, around 9000 primary industry workers, and more than 800 teachers. Some of the around 15,000 construction and 12,000 manufacturing workers on relevant visa types would also be eligible for the one-off pathway.
“These people have all played an important role in keeping our country moving over the last 18 months,” Faafoi said.
The announcement came after weeks of speculation following accidental uploads of these changes to the Immigration NZ website this month.
It was welcomed by the Employers and Manufacturers Association as the most significant immigration change in decades.
“Minister Kris Faafoi and Immigration NZ have copped a fair amount of flak in the past few months, but a response of this magnitude shows that they have listened and responded to the feedback we have been providing,” said chief executive Brett O’Riley.
“This response will go some way to easing the pressures businesses continue to face in sourcing skilled and willing people to fill what we have called the skills chasm in New Zealand workplaces.”
Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the change recognised the critical contribution of international workers. “It is important for New Zealand to signal that we welcome and value those who choose to contribute to New Zealand, if we are to remain globally competitive and continue to attract the best international skills and talent, and this is a positive step in that direction.”
And Dairy NZ said the decision was exciting news for thousands of eligible farm workers. “Many dairy workers can now plan and look forward to a future in New Zealand with their families. Their contribution will assist the dairy sector to continue playing a key role in New Zealand’s economy.”
The CTU also praised the new pathway. President Richard Wagstaff said: “This will be transformative for these working people and their families, who will now be able to plan their future in Aotearoa with security. These working people and their families have made significant contributions to our country, sometimes over decades.”
The newly-announced visa will also be available for those who enter New Zealand as critical workers, and their families, for roles six months or longer until July 31, 2022.
Visa holders can also include their partners and dependents in their application.
Applications for the 2021 Resident Visa will open in two phases on December 1, 2021 and March 1, 2022.
The one-off arrangement for the new visa would see the majority of applications granted within a year of the category opening.
“The Government is committed to rebalancing the immigration system for those who can come to work, study and live in New Zealand once our borders re-open. The 2021 Resident Visa is part of this,” Faafoi said.
Applicants will still need to meet health requirements and pass police and security checks, as is required under the current residence application process.
Faafoi said this announcement addressed the immediate immigration issues while work on the Government’s “reset” continued.
“But our message to industries and employers remains clear: they need to look for ways to build resilient workforces and to attract, train and retain local workers and reduce their reliance on low-skilled migrant labour,” Faafoi said.
There are about 11,600 expressions of interest applications that have been frozen for 18 months. This is in addition to the 11,400 unprocessed skilled migrant residence applications dating back to November 2019.
National MP Erica Stanford said the announcement was a year too late but she was happy the minister addressed the issue of migrants with adult children who cannot work or study while their parents’ visas are being processed.
From December, those with dependent children 17 years or older who currently have an expression of interest may apply for the fast-track visa.
“I’m most happy about this because we’ve been calling for this for months. All those kids out there who are unable to work or study and are having terrible mental health problems because of it will be prioritised,” Stanford said.
“Our message to industries and employers remains clear: they need to look for ways to build resilient workforces and to attract, train and retain local workers and reduce their reliance on low-skilled migrant labour.”
– Kris Faafoi, Immigration Minister
“The detail will be around how quickly they are able to process these applications.”
Newsroom reported last week all residence applications were on ice during Alert Level 4 and 3 in Auckland because these applications were paper-based and Immigration NZ staff weren’t able to access their offices.
Stanford said there had also been an exodus of case officers within Immigration NZ.
“He needs to address how many case officers will be assigned to these priority visas. They’re bleeding staff. There are 70 at the moment, they lost 28 staff and have only replaced 15.”
Immigration NZ is resourced in line with the Government’s New Zealand Residence Programme, which expired on December 31, 2019. While the agency waits for the Government to make a decision on the new quota, it has been processing applications at the same volume and with the same level of resourcing.
The programme ran for 18 months from July 1, 2018 until December 31, 2019 and included a planning range of 50,000 to 60,000 approvals for residency.
This threshold hasn’t been changed since.
Earlier this year the Government announced an immigration reset about New Zealand’s shift to attracting “high-skilled” workers.
Since then, Stanford said Faafoi “walked back” on the Government’s direction extending visas of “low-skilled” RSE workers and working holiday visas.
Waiting in queue
Aswin Kumar moved to New Zealand in 2016 to fill a role that had been on the critical shortage list for decades. After a 23-month wait, he became a permanent resident two months ago, but being split from his wife in India all this time had taken a toll on his mental health.
Kumar said Immigration NZ lacked cultural competence and the policy that required couples to “live together” among the requirements to be recognised as being legitimate partnerships had made it difficult for him to be with his partner.
Kumar said there wasn’t sufficient support for migrants when they move to New Zealand.
“Can these ministers live without their wife, husband or kids? They will never really understand what migrants in this country go through every day,” Kumar said.
“There are people sitting waiting in the queue for two years questioning whether they’ve made the right decision to be separated from their family members just for a better life.”
– Pooja Sundar, D&S Law
An Irish migrant who did not want to be named due to concerns it may jeopardise her family’s residence application said she struggled with depression because of the uncertainty of her future.
The mother of three children under seven said she was concerned seeking help may jeopardise her family’s chances of putting down roots in New Zealand.
Immigration lawyer Pooja Sundar said the 24 month-long waits had taken a toll on many of her clients’ mental health.
“There are people sitting waiting in the queue for two years questioning whether they’ve made the right decision to be separated from their family members just for a better life,” Sundar said.
Her clients have seen counsellors or psychologists for mental health support because of their immigration status, but she said many migrants were afraid to seek help over concerns their application may be rejected on this basis.
“They’re worried about seeking help and their application may get declined which adds to a situation where people are incredibly deeply unhappy and anxious.”
Migrants seeking to apply for permanent residence in New Zealand have to complete a medical check known as the Acceptable Standard of Health (Ash) test.
The test determines whether the applicant is unlikely to impose costs greater than $41,000 on New Zealand’s health services. An Immigration NZ medical assessor makes this decision.
If applicants don’t meet the Ash requirements then they can seek a medical waiver, usually done with the help of a lawyer.
According to Immigration NZ, when assessing whether the applicant meets the Ash test it, factors such as the objectives of the visa category under which the applicant has applied, the degree to which they would impose significant costs or demands on New Zealand’s health services, whether they have any immediate family residing in New Zealand and their potential contribution to New Zealand are taken into account.
Applications for the 2021 Resident Visa will be accepted from December 1, 2021 to July 31, 2022 in two phases:
From December 1, people who have submitted a Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) or Residence from Work (RfW) application can apply, as well as those with dependent children 17 years or older who currently have an SMC Expression of Interest (EOI) submitted.
From March 1, 2022, all other eligible applicants, including any others in the SMC Expression of Interest pool, can apply.
To prioritise processing of the 2021 Resident Visa, selections from the Skilled Migrant Category Expressions of Interest pool will remain closed until the 2021 Resident Visa closes on July 31, 2022, but applicants who meet the criteria in the EOI pool will be able to apply for this visa from December 1, 2021 or from March 1, 2022, depending on which category they fall into.