The angst in the migration queue
Analysis: It’s the biggest residency backlog in New Zealand history. Dileepa Fonseka reports on the human and economic cost of a queue so long there’s now even a queue to get on it.
When teachers hand Isabelle Dintchev forms for her parents to fill out she starts crying. She’s been separated from her mother for over a year.
‘‘My daughter says ‘mummy, we’ve all sacrificed so much, we can’t give up now’,’’ her mother, Odette Dintchev, recounts from her rented room on Auckland’s North Shore.
Her daughter and husband are in South Africa. They were there readying for their long-planned move to New Zealand when the borders closed.
‘‘My daughter is 10 years old. I haven’t seen her for over 400 days. Which is 10 per cent of her life.
‘‘You don’t want to give up because you know your family is going to be let in, but how much longer can you wait and how much does it take out of one to wait this long? We can do a year, but we can’t do another two years.’’
Their family sits at the nexus of both the border closure and a near-collapse of our skills-based immigration system.
Not only were Dintchev’s husband and daughter stranded more than 11,000 kilometres away when the borders closed, but their residency application is also stuck in the largest backlog of applications in the nation’s history with wait times now measured in years rather than months. There are 36,000 skilled migrant applications waiting to be processed.
The two issues are connected because if officials got around to processing their residency application they would be let through the border. Instead, they are likely to face a two-year wait for a decision.
‘‘My husband resigned his job with the idea that we’re coming over. We put our house on the market. We sold everything,’’ she says.
The queue includes workers essential to New Zealand’s Covid-19 response like Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) scientist Joep de Ligt, who is critical to this country’s genome testing efforts.
There is now even a queue to get into the queue, with a backlog of 7500 ‘‘expressions of interest’’ from people wanting to put residency applications in.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Arcus says businesses are struggling to plan for the future because they don’t know if some of their most critical employees will be allowed to stay long-term.
‘‘You’ve got to resource the backlog. That’s really the only answer,’’ Arcus says.
MPs on both ends of the political spectrum are criticising the Government for letting the problem get out of control.
National’s immigration spokeswoman, Erica Stanford, says: ‘‘Winston [Peters] may have left the building, but he still lives on in the Labour Party.
‘‘Every Government has changed the residency settings, but these guys have faffed around for so long it’s really unfair on people who are now here and have been contributing to our society for years.’’
Green Party MP Ricardo Mene´ ndez March argues the delays are keeping people in a ‘‘temporary visa limbo’’ and creating ‘‘a transient migrant population that’s effectively kept with few rights and at risk of exploitation’’.
Three weeks ago, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi told the Sunday Star-Times he wouldn’t be available for an interview on this topic. The week afterwards he still wasn’t able to talk, but offered to submit written responses to any questions.
At the beginning of March he appeared on an hour-long edition of TVNZ’s Q+A where he blamed it all on the closure of overseas visa processing centres, Covid-19, and an unexpectedly high number of residency applications.
Despite Faafoi’s assertions, the backlog and applications are not unexpected and can be traced back to high numbers of temporary migrants coming into the country and a planning range set by the Cabinet.
Residency approvals are set by the Government through a New Zealand Residence Programme planning range.
Immigration NZ can technically exceed the planning range, but they are supposed to plan to stay within it.
A higher planning range means Immigration is mandated to allocate more resources to processing applications. The lower it is, the less they allocate and the fewer applications they process.
This low residency planning range has slowed down the pace of processing, but increasing it is not an option for some Labour Party MPs and Cabinet ministers who are opposed to more immigration.
Dintchev rang Immigration in February and found out just how much processing had slowed down.
‘‘They’ve processed one day of residency applications in one month,’’ she says.
Both Labour and NZ First were elected in 2017 partly on the back of a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and a pledge to cut immigration levels.
Yet by the time the borders closed the temporary migrant population had gone the other way and increased by more than 30,000 while annual net migration exceeded 86,000.
Faafoi’s predecessor, Iain LeesGalloway, submitted a paper to the Cabinet three years ago saying 80 per cent of people granted residency were previously on some form of temporary visa.
With increasing numbers of temporary migrants the paper noted ‘‘there could be future pressure on the Residence Programme if temporary visa holders decide to seek residence’’.
In 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants (temporary visa holders) for 47,000 residency application spots: a ratio of 2.65 to one.
When the borders closed last year there were more than 300,000 potential applicants for a potential 37,000 residency application spots – a ratio of more than eight to one.
National cut the two-year planning range in 2016 which meant the yearly allocation fell from 47,500 to 45,000. Labour and NZ First then put in an 18-month planning range of 50,000 to 60,000. This lowered the annual Residence Programme allocation to 37,000 a year and was scheduled to expire last year.
When the planning range expired the Cabinet did not set a new one and Lees-Galloway just asked Immigration to proceed as if the old planning range of 37,000 a year were in place.
Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong says this is a major reason for the slow processing times.
‘‘All that Immigration has been able to do in the meantime is just maintain the status quo in a policy vacuum. They don’t have a [residence] programme at the moment. There is no target.’’
Dintchev never wanted to immigrate. The place of her birth was a beautiful country, and she would probably still be there if it wasn’t for her child and a growing sense things were getting worse.
One of the triggers was an incident where a 19-year-old neighbour walked into their house to find an intruder inside. By the time Dintchev arrived on the scene the area was flooded with armed response units.
Her best path to residency was to persuade an accredited employer to hire her, but she
had to move to New Zealand first to persuade employers she was serious. Dintchev treated her search for employment like a job in and of itself – getting up at the crack of dawn to hop on LinkedIn, firing off messages, emails and CVs to every employer on the accredited employer list.
If anybody agreed to an interview she would turn up in person, even if it meant spending hundreds of dollars on air travel and eating through their savings. IMMagine immigration adviser Iain MacLeod says Immigration often tries to paint a rosy picture of the process, but he tells potential migrants it will be like climbing Mt Everest – ‘‘it’s the worst thing you’ll ever do, and I wouldn’t wish migration on my worst enemy’’.
Last February, when the skilled migrant residency backlog was sitting at almost 32,000 applications, the Government announced a new ‘‘priority’’ and ‘‘non-priority’’ system. Applicants earning double the median wage ($106,080 a year) or with occupational registration in specific professions like teaching would be considered first.
De Ligt doesn’t meet ‘‘priority’’ criteria even though he is the only person in the country with his skillset. ‘‘There’s no way for me to provide evidence of being an essential worker or anything like that,’’ he says, making it clear his views are his own and not his employer’s.
‘‘You just get stuck in the queue. And if that queue gets too long you run out of this half-year grace period that you have when you’re on a work visa.’’
Faafoi wants a review of the Skilled Migrant Category, but he is yet to receive any advice from officials on what such a review could look like.
ACT’s James McDowall is suspicious of it and sees the potential for sudden and painful changes down the line.
‘‘It’ll be a review like no other in terms of the skilled migrant category because they’re looking at a two-year plus backlog.’’
When a skilled migrant tries to qualify for residency they have to meet a certain points threshold. Migrants put in expressions of interest if they think they have enough ‘‘points’’ to qualify. Immigration pick these out of a pool and invite them to apply for residency.
Stanford says when National lowered the residency planning range they also lowered the number of points needed for residency, meaning fewer expressions of interest were eligible for selection.
Now Labour have a problem they have caused for themselves, she says.
‘‘They changed the setting at one end, but didn’t change the setting at the other.
‘‘Now they’re scrambling to fix it. And the only fix they’ve got is to put everything on ice.’’
In the absence of any discussion of the planning range some are trying to lobby for other solutions.
More than 64,000 people have signed a petition to Parliament asking for residency status to be automatically granted to all migrants on temporary work visas.
De Ligt says there should be some way of recognising essential workers within the residency application process.
Dintchev is pinning her hopes on a border exemption for her family, along the lines of those granted for an assortment of vaguely familiar Hollywood names. She keeps filing requests on humanitarian grounds at $45 a pop, and has sent in 26 so far.
Dintchev keeps herself busy talking to her family on the phone or working. Her husband will sometimes be walking his 20km a day while they chat, as part of his health regime, but when he hangs up she’s back to waiting and working.
Working keeps her mind off things. On her days off she tries to relax by going to the beach, but she stays away from it on Sundays. Seeing families playing there reminds her that her husband and daughter are stranded in South Africa.