A National government’s user-pays immigration system would increase fees and give wealthier migrants the ability to speed up their applications.

As part of its wide-ranging tax policy, finance spokesperson and deputy leader Nicola Willis says the move to user-pays immigration levies would earn the government $123 million a year on average. The increases would exclude tourist visas.

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If National wins October’s general election, it will review visa fee settings, with new higher fees expected to be applied from the middle of next year.

Higher visa fees would be benchmarked against what it costs to move to Australia – just a little lower. To give New Zealand a competitive advantage, the party says it wouldn’t allowing fees to increase above 90 percent of Australia’s rates.

Some visa fees will stay the same: visitor visa fees are already more expensive in New Zealand than in Australia, and fees for Pasifika migrants will be frozen in place.

Partner residence fees could more than triple to a whopping $8,668.

Anu Kaloti, president of the Migrant Workers Association, says increasing already expensive fees during a cost-of-living crisis would make people’s lives difficult and the ability to fast-track visas would unduly privilege high-income migrants.

“It’s a huge problem as far as we are concerned,” she says. “We would be advocating for immigration fees to be reduced if anything.”

She says a first-come, first-served system would be fairer and not entrench wealth divides.

“Visas should really be processed in the order of application. Even now we have some priority orders: people above the median wage or on occupation registration lists,” she says.

Kaloti says being at the back of the queue has myriad social impacts for migrant communities.

“It causes a huge amount of anxiety for people, it puts their lives on hold, it stops people from travelling in and out of New Zealand, so it keeps families apart for longer."

At present employment-related visas can sometimes be expedited after immigration officers assess whether there are “compelling personal circumstances, humanitarian factors, and matters of national interest”.

A National government would add to that list the ability to pay an additional fee, the size of which is yet to be announced.

National’s policy says evidence shows vital factors in attracting skilled migrants to the country include short visa processing times and competitive immigration settings.

The policy document points to the similar fees in the United Kingdom.

Applicants going for a visa from within the UK can pay £500 (NZD$1061) to get a decision within five working days, or £800 (NZD$1699) for “super priority service”, which gets a decision by the end of the next working day.

In the United States, somewhere in the range of USD$1,500 to $2,500 (NZD$2522 to $4203) will get you premium processing on your immigration application.

National's immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford challenged the idea priority processing fees would entrench inequities in migrant communities, comparing it to the current ability people have to hurry up passport issuing if they have $206 to spare.

“It’s exactly the same as our passport service, and nobody ever complains about people having a two-tiered service there,” she says.

Visa priority will be more expensive than that, however. Stanford says the exact cost is yet to be determined, but would have to be enough that a sudden demand wouldn’t swamp Immigration New Zealand.

She says though lower-income migrants may not be paying for priority processing, they would still be getting their visas quicker and with greater certainty under the new system.

The cost recovery model along with a soon-to-be announced immigration policy would “give us more flexibility at Immigration NZ, including the ability to hire more processing officers – people of lesser means won't have to wait as long”.

But would an increase in visa fees dissuade much-needed migrant workers from moving to New Zealand?

Stanford says no, adding that visa fees are a minute fraction of the overall costs of immigration.

It’s an expensive process – whether it's the cost of packing up and shipping possessions across the sea or buying an air fare for a whole family. 

Even so, cost increases to visas such as partner residence are nothing to sneeze at if they jump up by $6,000 after the review.

Stanford says increases would be “targeted and mindful”: 

“We haven't decided to whack everything up to 90 percent of what you pay in Australia.”

There is no strong link between visa fees and demand for visas. “We saw last year when visa fees went up that it had absolutely no impact for people applying for visas,” she says. “There are many other things far more important than visa fees and one of them is the processing time itself.”

Greens immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March says adding in the fact some migrants have to apply multiple times, the cost would increase inequality and hardship among migrant workers.

“Many of the migrant workers we are trying to attract to settle will struggle to fork out the money to pay for exorbitant visa fees that will pay for tax cuts for higher income earners and landlords,” he says.

“What they are doing is leaving our immigration system at the mercy of a user-pays model at a time when we are trying to make New Zealand an attractive and welcoming place for migrants.”

Menéndez March says the ambiguity over fees would increase uncertainty for migrants, particularly those working in healthcare and construction on low wages. “They’ll be wondering how much debt they will have to get into to pay for the fees.”

He also questions the resilience of a funding model reliant on demand for visas.

“Visa fees at the moment are there to support INZ's day to day running, not to pay for tax cuts,” he says. “If the ability to raise revenue is dependent on peaks and troughs in net migration – and as we've experienced over the last 10 years those peaks and troughs can change – it raises questions about the vulnerability of the whole plan.”

National is selling its tax plan as being fully funded by service cuts and new revenue initiatives, so as to reduce inflationary risk.

That $123m from user-pays immigration levies represents about four percent of the money earmarked by National to pay for its programme of tax cuts.

It’s a small percentage – but one that would be heavily reliant on the sustained demand for New Zealand visas in years to come.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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