Immigration

‘Mayhem’ for locked out migrants

Immigration 'mayhem' is building as migrants travel to and from Coronavirus-afflicted countries in a frantic bid to get their partners home, Dileepa Fonseka reports

People are travelling in and out of coronavirus-afflicted countries in desperate attempts to get their partners home safely while complying with a border lockdown designed to keep out Covid-19.

Artist Robin Brisker, a US citizen and NZ permanent resident  who has lived here for 20 years, is packing his bags.

He flies out of Wanaka on Monday to rescue his fiancée Maria Galloway from the "sh*tshow that is America".

Galloway, a work visa holder and US citizen, was caught on the wrong side of our border closure when she flew home to visit her severely ill mother.

"Almost everybody says 'you're crazy going back to America' and my only reply is 'well, she gave up everything to come live here'," Brisker said.

"If they let her back in I wouldn't be going."

"I can't imagine that anything would happen in the next three days for the Government to [change their minds and] say 'oh gee, we feel terrible, sure she can come back in'."

At a press conference on Wednesday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the fact there were fewer New Zealand citizens returning meant a solution would soon be possible for temporary migrants - with 14-day quarantine.

She also highlighted one exemption that was open to them without any need to apply for a 'border exception':

"If you are travelling with a New Zealander for instance they [the rules] even say you don't necessarily seek exceptions you just need to travel with your partner."

For people like Brisker that means his fiancée can come back for her wedding if he flies to Florida then flies back to New Zealand with her. 

Immigration NZ has said restrictions that bar New Zealanders on temporary visas returning are there to prevent Covid-19 re-infection, but Galloway is worried the whole exercise will leave Brisker more at-risk of catching the virus.

"He might be exposed, but what's the alternative?"

Exceptions to our border closures have come under increased scrutiny in recent days with many migrant advocates asking that restrictions be lifted for people on work visas stuck outside the country.

Economic development Minister Phil Twyford said a Cabinet paper is on its way - likely before July - with a solution. He has granted exceptions to hundreds of people working on movie sets and undertaking specialist infrastructure work. 

Immigration New Zealand has received over 9000 requests for exceptions and granted more than 2000 of them. They can be granted for humanitarian reasons, essential workers, and to the proven "New Zealand-based" partners of visa-holders - however it is difficult to get a border exception because the bar for granting one has been set high to keep out Covid-19.

"The decisions that I've been making on these exceptions to the border process, it's a short term interim thing while the Government looks at the broader issue of border policies," Twyford said.

"There's work underway right now and we'll be bringing a paper to Cabinet before long on a review of all of the settings around the border." 

Brisker has painted a picture every day Maria has been away. Photo: Supplied

The other half of the Government, NZ First, have signalled they don't want to let temporary migrants back in because they would take jobs away from New Zealanders. 

Lawyer Alastair McClymont has been inundated with hundreds of pleas from migrants desperate to get back into the country along with calls from employers in industries like agriculture who want their managers and workers back. 

"There is a complete vagueness around the rules and an inconsistency in how the rules are being applied. It is just creating mayhem." McClymont said.

"Within the migrant community they're worried about what's going to happen."

"They need to really make a decision and they need to make it very quickly and they need to be very clear about who's going to qualify and who's not going to qualify."

'It's not right'

James*, a German citizen, went through the same experience Galloway did, but on the eve of lockdown.

His highly immune-compromised partner - a New Zealand citizen - had to fly from New Zealand to the United States so that he could fly back with her without a border exception.

Like migrant Shuchi Bhardwaj James was stuck on the wrong side of the border closure after a last-minute change to Immigration NZ's website invalidated his entry into the country mid-flight. 

"Everything they have is in New Zealand and their whole life in New Zealand."

He had been working in the Caribbean for a New Zealand company and bought a ticket home that connected through the United States once the border closure was announced.

While INZ's website originally said passengers on temporary visas who boarded flights before 11.59pm Thursday March 19 would be allowed through it was later changed to say only people who boarded the final leg of their flight by that time could do so. 

That meant when James touched down in the US he learned he wouldn't be allowed to board his connecting flight to New Zealand. 

"I was devastated."

"Luckily there was no travel ban [in the US]...so I could at least leave the airport and go to a hotel."

"There was nothing we could do. We wrote multiple emails. My partner wrote multiple emails, but no response....as long as your partner's not physically with you they don't do any exceptions."

His partner in New Zealand has an immune system that is highly compromised, but he could get into New Zealand without a border exception if she flew to meet him and they both caught the same flight back.

His partner's family urged her not to take the flight, but the couple felt they didn't have much choice.  

"[It's] not the right thing to do to lock people out like that with no notice."

"I mean, you granted these visas, there's a certain responsibility to people like me. Everything they have is in New Zealand and their whole life in New Zealand."

"If you granted a visa you can't just revoke that right with [a few] hours' notice. I don't think that's fair."

'I cried in my room'

Artist Brisker can remember a time when it was all easier. He got his permanent residency in New Zealand thanks to Helen Clark.

He wrote a letter to Clark during a trip to Wanaka he made in 2000 to ask her how artists like him could stay here.

"She spoke to some of her colleagues and said I just need to get a work visa for two or three years and then apply for residency."

"Back then it was a lot easier." 

Fast forward to March of last year and he was back in the United States to visit his parents.

He went out to dinner and bumped into a friend who was on a date with Galloway at the time and "foolishly" introduced him to her.

"He went off to work the room and go to the buffet and he didn't come back for 20 minutes."

"Five months later I bumped into her again and this time I got her phone number."

She came back with him to New Zealand and the pair had plans to get married in July.

Her short trip back to visit her mother, who is suffering from cancer, would throw those plans into disarray.

They tried to avoid it. Partway through her trip Brisker told her to book a flight because borders could close soon. Then she got a call from him that they had been too late and she wouldn't be able to get back in.

"I locked myself in my room and cried for two days," Galloway said.

Her fiancé has been doing his best to keep her spirits up by painting a picture for her almost every day she's been away.

James said he counted himself lucky not to be in the situation Galloway was in right now, but he sympathised with those still stuck overseas.

Our Government had done a good job in its handling of Covid-19, but he believed locking out migrants on work visas - many of whom had paid taxes for years - had the potential to reflect badly on our international reputation.

"In this particular instance I think it's a bad picture for the Government."

"They locked people out who have a right to be in New Zealand."

*This migrant has requested their name be withheld. 

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