Immigration changes give rise to partnership visas

Changes to working visa requirements have narrowed the path for foreigners wanting to work and live in New Zealand. However, partnership visa applications - as an alternative - are on the rise. Teuila Fuatai reports. 

In the lead-up to the 2016 Christmas holidays, a team of Immigration NZ officials were busy considering how to deal with an increase in partnership visa applications. The increase had come, and would continue, because of changes to the skilled migrant and essential skills visa categories, they reasoned.

Those changes - which had decreased the number of available ‘residence approvals’ over a two-year period and made it more difficult to automatically qualify for residency - would “highly likely” result in increasing numbers of temporary migrants looking for “other pathways to residence”.

The concerns, and subsequent, temporary solution, is detailed in documents released under the Official Information Act.

“For many, this means that gaining residence through partnership channels is the only option available to them,” a December 2016 paper said in reference to the changes.

“This in turn exacerbates the risk of fraudulent partnership applications (both temporary and residence visa) as migrants seek to establish a partnership history that will meet immigration policy requirements.”

For immigration officers, assessment of partnership visa applications present unique, and often time-consuming challenges. “In particular, language and cultural aspects can create added complexities to assessing whether the relationship is both genuine and stable,” the paper noted. At the time, anecdotal evidence from local Immigration NZ offices also showed an increase in the number of “higher-risk partnership applications waiting for suitable verification”.

Senior experience needed

To address this, a dedicated partnership application team was set up in Auckland in February last year. One of its primary tasks was to deal to the “backlog of on-hand applications”, which by March that year totalled 2012 for temporary partnership visas. To improve the team’s approach, a further step was taken to increase scrutiny around partnership applications deemed high-risk. That specialist, five-person unit - formally established in May last year - boasted two senior immigration officers, as well as three lesser-experienced ones.

Details of the team’s operations, and how it differed in its approach to verification of visas, provides insight into the relationship visa process. First, the team was instructed to interview all applicants that were in New Zealand - rather than assume that an interview was not needed like other cases. Officers were also encouraged to “take whatever time is required to undertake any verification deemed necessary”. Members of the team were also given special interview and cultural training.

While the increased scrutiny performed by the high-risk unit meant they took longer to process applications, it also showed how valuable in-person interviews and home visits were. Some of the case studies detailed in documents included one where the couple said they had met at a Carl’s Jr and had been together since July 2016. Inspection of the applicant partner’s previous visa file from January 2017 showed they had “ticked single” and had listed a different address. In an interview with the partner sponsoring the relationship visa, they “could not explain the discrepancy and became very upset”. Eventually, one of the partners admitted the couple had only lived together since “January/February 2017”. Documents supplied as part of the visa application were also found to be forged.

Another couple were found not to be genuine after a visit to the home address listed on the visa application. “[Sponsor partner] not home and minimal belongings including only one pair of underwear,” documents showed. “Partner explained he had a skin infection and had to to dispose of all undergarments.” In both cases, the partnership visa applications were rejected.

Good things take time

After two months, results from the high-risk partnership unit showed they processed and approved fewer applications than other Immigration NZ officers who worked in Auckland. Overall, the approval rate for the partnership team was 56 percent in that time, compared to 94 percent for other Immigration NZ officers in Auckland.

At that time, an early analysis of the unit’s performance encouraged the increased verification approach - citing the “sufficient” number of high-risk applications as justification for “advanced verification". It also suggested that “increased information-sharing” with other government departments - particularly NZ Police, the Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand - would be useful. Notably, the analysis also suggested the “formal removal of timelines standards” for high-risk applications.

Despite that, the unit’s processing time appears to have raised concerns not long after the two-month analysis was performed, with a manager in Auckland highlighting its processing time in an email in late June 2017.

“The consistency looks good for the high-risk team,” he wrote. “Productivity looks like an issue - would expect around three decisions per day.”

Current situation

When Newsroom asked what happened to the high-risk unit, Immigration NZ said it was “disbanded in mid-February 2018 when partnership work began to be transitioned” to its Hamilton office.

Meanwhile, a separate report which also looked at the unit’s operations showed it took its members four times longer to process applications than the timeframes set out in Immigration NZ’s visa processing targets. It also highlighted that tougher criteria changes for work visa categories - which have continued to be rolled out last year and this year - has likely contributed to fraud in partnership visa applications.  

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