Oped written by ACT Immigration spokesperson James McDowall
Oped written by ACT Immigration spokesperson James McDowall

Opinion: Picking up the pieces of our broken immigration system

Opinion 05/11/2021

OPINION: Behind the hardened bureaucrats and colossal red tape at Immigration New Zealand is a Minister who appears to have suddenly realised that after 18-months of doing very little, he might have a few problems on his hands.

There’s a famous Japanese art called Kintsugi, which is where they repair shattered pottery by using resin or lacquer to put it all back together. Metaphorically it is the embracing of something that is flawed and for rebuilding. 

With the recently announced 2021 Resident Visa, the Minister may just be taking some inspiration from this practice. Ultimately though, the system is so broken that it’s going to take much more than a one-off Hail Mary to fix it.

We’re told that a review of the Skilled Migrant Category is underway to find a long-term solution, but you can bet it won’t be pretty. The same goes for the Parent Category and the Business Visas. The Residence from Work Category was badly managed and is being put out of its misery.

Those who process visas at Immigration New Zealand are in an anxious holding pattern, awaiting a deluge of 2021 Resident Visa applications come 1 December. The Minister promises that he will run a tight ship (this time) and has firmly stated that he expects his department to process the applications of 130,000 people within 12-months. 

Migrants and their employers are rightly asking how this will be possible given they couldn’t handle queues of about 20 per cent of that number. Is there a risk that the Minister is just rearranging the deck chairs? 

A further complication is the supposed launch of the long-delayed Accredited Employer Work Visa in the middle of this. This scheme will have huge implications for temporary visa holders, their employers, and will likely do nothing to combat migrant exploitation. Many stakeholders wonder where the resourcing will come from to roll this out successfully. 

The 2021 Resident Visa was ultimately the right thing to do – and should have gone further – but always be mindful that the right thing to do can be executed poorly. Note that doctors and vets on Working Holiday Visas miss out, but if you’re a cotton farmer, no worries. No, I’m not making that up.

What about those who missed out? There are strong cases of unfairness, and I’m not sure the Minister even thought about it. 

I asked the Minister three specific questions on 21 October: 1) whether he could include student visa holders if they had previously held eligible work visas, 2) whether he would allow split migrants to reunite with their families offshore once they had applied, and 3) could he commit to resuming offshore Expression of Interest selection by July 2022. The net result was that the Minister refused to even acknowledge people in these situations. 

I especially have sympathy for the many people who have been on work visas for years, dedicated their lives to New Zealand, and chose to switch to a student visa to undertake further study during the pandemic, often while still working. The same goes for those who have lived here for years, got stranded offshore during a business trip or to see family, and despite now being back do not meet the criteria.  

They missed out, and their futures here became even more uncertain. We’re talking healthcare professionals, early-childhood teachers, MIQ workers, and many others, including their partners, in essential roles balancing work and study. 

The ongoing lack of red-carpet treatment for registered health professionals astounds me. A GP with an Expression of Interest in the pool still must wait until March 2022 to apply, along with 90,000 others. Cue the queue anxiety all over again.

The 2021 Resident Visa will earn the department about $200 million in revenue, assuming the projected number of applicants holds. The least the Minister could have done, for those who missed out, was to detail what the residency programme will look like from 2022. He should be upfront with people about just how far the goalposts will shift; the uncertainty is debilitating for them. 

ACT recently launched an online petition, ‘Make the 2021 Resident Visa fairer for all’, calling for the Minister to make key changes to expand its eligibility. Many thousands supported us and have reached out with their stories, highlighting how minor personal circumstances have ruled out so many deserving people that we want to retain in New Zealand long-term. 

For those offshore, life has been very difficult since March 2020, not least of all because of the effects of COVID-19. They have homes, possessions, family members, jobs, and friends in New Zealand. 

Before the details of the 2021 Resident Visa were released, there was a glimmer of hope that those stuck offshore through no fault of their own, who otherwise meet the requirements of the visa, would be given the discretion to apply. 

We asked for this in our petition. Sadly, this did not eventuate. The result is split migrants now feeling trapped, with many – including doctors – eyeing up countries like Canada, which welcome them and their families with open arms. 

The Government is slowly but surely heading down a path of no return with their COVID-19 strategy, and we encourage the opening of borders smartly and safely – refer to ACT’s COVID 3.0 policy document. 

The Government should acknowledge the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of its immigration policies throughout the pandemic, do right by migrants by dumping its nebulous ‘immigration reset’, and communicate its immigration policy roadmap in detail. 

Window dressing and one-off visa announcements get migrants nowhere. Those who have their lives established here, have had children born here, and have kept our economy going lockdown after lockdown deserve better. 

ACT could inherit an immigration system on the brink because of decisions being made now by the Labour Government. Nevertheless, migrants and employers trying to cope with economy-wide skills shortages can have confidence that ACT will continue to support them and develop better public policy. 

My advice to migrants is to never give up – in fact, collective pressure has resulted in several positive outcomes in recent months. Now more than ever we need to maintain advocacy.   

This oped was written by ACT MP James McDowall.

James has owned several small businesses and currently co-owns an immigration law firm. Prior to entering Parliament, he worked for a large NGO in the mental health sector. He has a young, multicultural family and is based in the Waikato.

ACT MP James McDowall