An immigration handbrake is released

Former immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway will not be missed by migrants, after an attempt to cut immigration and put Kiwis first created a whole host of even bigger problems, Dileepa Fonseka writes

When Iain Lees-Galloway left his immigration portfolio many migrants used just one word to define his demise: karma.

There was a lot of pity from the pundits for Lees-Galloway having to step down on Wednesday, both for the knock-on effect this could have on everybody else having an affair in Parliament and the terrible time he had in his portfolio.

Who would want to swap places with a minister whose portfolio receives more individual complaints than any other and where your every move is supposedly subject to a New Zealand First "handbrake"?

Yet those inside government tell a different story, and say Labour was just as insistent on pulling up the immigration handbrake as their coalition partner. The Greens meanwhile, seem to have been opposed to the other parties' policies but did not have a vote in Cabinet.

Labour and New Zealand First came to power on the back of big promises to cut the number of migrants coming into the country. They didn't.

The Government continued to let them in, but never gave them an official right to stay - similar to the type of policies seen in the Middle East, including centres like Dubai, where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are brought in to do menial labour.

In Dubai, the situation is made clear to migrants when they arrive and they don't pay tax because they're just being imported for their labour. 

Where once the developed world needed software engineers, it now needed rest home carers, construction site labourers and pastry chefs.

Until Covid-19 started affecting migration flows, the Government was issuing an average of 28,584 temporary work and student visas per month, 25 percent more than its National predecessor's average of 22,942 per month from 2009 to late 2017.

Competition for migrant labour around the globe was fierce at the time. Thanks to ageing populations across the developed world young people who wanted to move out of India, the Philippines or South America and start a new life had a number of different options even if they weren't doctors, lawyers, IT professionals, or engineers.

Where once the developed world needed software engineers, it now needed rest home carers, construction site labourers and pastry chefs. 

Despite talking a big game before getting into power both Labour and NZ First soon realised what others before them had: turning off the flow of migrant labour into the country was not going to work without the country taking a big hit to its headline economic data and eroding the profit margins of employers.

As a country we couldn't offer higher wages than our competitor nations. However, we could offer migrants the chance to - eventually - become New Zealanders through a points system that had successfully admitted thousands of immigrants before.

Advertisements to foreign students and official visa documents continued to promote temporary visas as a way they could eventually live in New Zealand (a "pathway to residence"), because we needed them. 

A broken handbrake

New Zealanders don't really understand this part of the story. They think migrants are grateful for us for giving them the opportunity to live here.

Talk to many of them and they think the situation is the other way around: we invited them over and we want them here.

Faced with a set of irresolvable set of campaign promises, Lees-Galloway pulled the handbrake successive governments have. Only this time it broke. 

That handbrake was the planning range associated with the New Zealand Residence Programme (NZRP) that sets a target for the number of residency applications that can be approved.

However, his attempt to manipulate it created a huge imbalance between the number of residency places available and the number of people here on temporary visas - directly leading to the largest backlog of residency applicants onshore in our recent history.

At the end of June there were 38,787 skilled migrant applications stuck in the residency queue. When Labour took office that was just over 10,000. 

The number of actual people concerned is probably even larger than this because there can be more than one person attached to a single application.  Some have been stuck in the queue for more than two years when it used to take a few months.

Since the early 2000s our country has set that residency target at between 45,000 and 50,000 per year. National reduced it to approximately 45,000 per year. Labour cut it even further to 37,000 - even while the number of people coming here on temporary visas was rising

Immigration New Zealand has been placed in an impossible position by ministerial edicts, Dileepa Fonseka argues. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

To put that imbalance in context, back in 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants on temporary visas when the residency target was 47,000: a ratio of 2.65 to one. At the end of last year there were 290,000 on temporary visas and the target had been lowered to 37,000: a ratio of 7.84 to one.

This left Immigration New Zealand itself in an impossible position. There were more people legally eligible to become permanent residents than there were places for them. 

Doing its best to fulfil Cabinet's instructions, INZ started to look for ways to meet that target. First it started applying more stringent criteria related to 'arranged marriages'. This led to a massive backdown from the Government as the whole issue turned into a racial firestorm and looked likely to cost Labour votes in the Indian community.

Then INZ started simply spacing out its processing so that its whole quota wouldn't be met too quickly. This created another problem because residency applications have to be processed in the order in which they are received, so a person earning $100,000 was stuck in the same queue as someone earning much less, and the high-wage earner could just leave to take up another job in a different country.

So they created two queues - "priority" and "non-priority" - but there has still been little movement according to Official Information Act responses received earlier this year. 

The problem is brutally solving itself after Covid-19. Many of the people in this queue were in Covid-affected industries, lost their jobs and now have no right to stay in this country.

Others are hanging on for their lives and hoping they aren't part of a second wave of redundancies. If they are, then a whole decade will have been wasted in some cases.

It has created a situation ripe for migrant exploitation. Now it's more important than ever for these migrants to keep their position on a specific employer's payroll. If they don't then they'll lose their place in the queue and have to re-apply - which could mean a wait time of another 18 months.

Living on the street

Covid-19 also threw up a whole host of other immigration issues that the Government seemed to take a lot of time making a decision on.

Lees-Galloway was granted sweeping new immigration powers near the beginning of lockdown to change visa conditions and allow people to switch employers, but didn't use them.

There were no migrant benefits (although Carmel Sepuloni as Social Development Minister was more responsible for this one) which left some surviving on cans of beans, or living on the street during lockdown. There was also no ability for migrants to find a new job if they lost theirs (Lees-Galloway was responsible for this one), not to mention the thousands of temporary migrants locked out of the country after spending a decade here. 

Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) too were left in limbo, as were their employees, when the harvest season ended and they were left with workers who couldn't return home. This opened those workers up to exploitation, including one alleged instance captured on tape during a Newsroom investigation.

The RSE workers at the centre of it weren't impressed with Lees-Galloway's performance. They sent him an email with all their accusations - and the infamous tape recording - long before Newsroom was alerted to the situation. The former Minister seemed to be unaware of it when he tweeted that he would do something about the events detailed in Newsroom's story.

Jason Sheardown, an advocate for one of the RSE workers, could barely suppress his rage. 

Kris Faafoi appears unlikely to lead any dramatic change in policy as the caretaker Immigration Minister. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

"I won’t forget that moment when I was sitting next to Lyn in the hospital while she was on the drip and I read Iain Lees-Galloway’s tweeting about safety and support. I still haven’t heard from him," he wrote to me on the day the workers were forced to leave.

"No response from the minister when I provided the evidence. No response from the minister when we wanted legal representation or legal aid. It’s all at our cost and it’s all our problem."

There has been palpable anger in migrant communities and amongst liberal voters towards the way the country's immigration system has been run despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's personal popularity amongst both groups. 

With the Greens having carved out a clear disapproving stance against it all, there's a possibility immigration issues could make a real difference in electorates like Auckland Central, which have a liberal bent and where there are more overseas-born residents than New Zealand-born ones.

Unless the new Labour guy is better- so I asked Lees-Galloway's successor Kris Faafoi what his priorities were in the role.

His answer started with "Errr..." wandered into "keeping the border safe from Covid" and ended with: "We've got to make sure the economy is recovering as getting that balance right."

What about the nearly 40,000 applications stuck in that residency queue? "Yeah. Well. Look. It's been like that for some time."

Did he think Lees-Galloway had done a good job?

"Of course I did, but you know, you've got to move on."

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