Inside sweeping new visa powers

Will sweeping new powers to change visa rules unclog the immigration system, or just freeze the current mess in place? Dileepa Fonseka takes a closer look.

Migrant advocates are hopeful a new Immigration bill will give temporary workers a surer footing, but others fear it will just bring pre-Covid divisions to the fore.

The Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill will give the Government sweeping new powers over the future status of 350,000 people on temporary visas for one year. It passed its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday evening.

Lawyers and migrant advocates are optimistic the bill will be used to allow more migrants to stay and switch employers or industries. It will allow the Government to change conditions across a large number of visas at will. 

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said while "fear and paranoia" about the legislation was justified, the new legislation would also give Government a greater ability to fix major immigration issues quickly without having to rely on a major policy change.

Another Immigration lawyer Tuariki Delamere - formerly a Minister of Immigration under the Bolger-led National and New Zealand First coalition Government - said there was no chance the powers would be exercised in that way.

Delamere believed many on temporary visas would eventually have to leave, unless there were no flights back.

"Immigration New Zealand can't do anything without authority from Cabinet. Iain [Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway] can't do anything without authority from Cabinet," he said.

"Winston's not going to allow Labour just to decide for themselves. Not a chance in hell.

"Bet you a dollar to a donut when the rug's pulled out [from under visa holders]. Winston will step forward and claim credit for it."

NZ First MP Shane Jones made it clear the Immigration Minister would be granted great powers, but they would be subject to a "policy envelope" that would be decided by the Government in the months to come.

Winston Peters also insisted the law would not give the Immigration Minister the power to make decisions "carte blanche".

"It does not do that. In fact there is a policy structure around that within which the Minister must exercise his judgment."

"That's why we can support this."

Learning from last time

Delamere said the new law would prevent the kind of court challenges that successfully overturned a mass-lapsing of residency applications in the early 2000s when tens of thousands of applications were invalidated at the stroke of a pen.

The law was successfully challenged, but the Government eventually got around that by passing a new law. Today that law had been passed before any challenges could be laid.

"The only visas I expect will remain largely intact will be partnership visas of partners of New Zealand citizens and residence holders," Delamere said.

"All other visas, skilled work visas, I think they'll all be put on hold until the Government works out what skills we actually need."

"And what skills we need today is a hell of a lot different than what we needed two months ago.  

However Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin said he was optimistic many of those on skills visas would still be needed when unemployment rose.

Locals working in heavily-affected industries like hospitality and tourism would be slow to retrain and had more resources to wait out the job market until a vacancy in their preferred industry popped up. 

'A big overhaul is required'

Migrant Workers Association President Anu Kaloti said the immigration situation had gone rapidly "downhill" recently with long processing times and inconsistent decisions. 

She hoped the new powers would give Government the opportunity to sort out many of the issues with the system. 

"Something definitely is not right. I'm hopeful that the Government will use the next 12 months to put Immigration New Zealand right."

Kaloti said the powers would allow the Government to relax visa conditions for people and allow them to switch employers if they were let go. 

McClymont said the Lees-Galloway had signalled the Government would be wary of sending temporary workers back to countries that were currently suffering from a Covid-19 pandemic. 

He suspected any clampdown would be levelled at new applications. The new legislation allows Government to put a halt to these applications being sent in during the pandemic. 

"Businesses must be saying look 'yes there's going to be a lot of unemployed people, but we need people who have got experience and skills who are supervising and managing".

"These are the people who are going to be training new staff...We can't just lose these people overnight."

DairyNZ Chief Executive Tim Mackle said 2500 visas for temporary workers on dairy farms were due to expire by September. And there would be a shortfall of 1000 staff even if all of those visas were extended.

"We are committed to employing New Zealanders and plans are in place for a programme to retrain and redeploy people into the dairy sector."

"However there is also a need to protect and retain our current migrant staff who are part of farm teams across the country.”

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