‘Scary’ residency queue gets worse

A residency backlog that was a problem before the pandemic is now even worse

Our country has more people onshore stuck in a queue for residency rights than it has at any other point in recent history.

The publicly available statistics only go back to 2008, but the situation is worse today because residency is now mainly granted to people who are already here on temporary visas. 

For skilled migrants, the system places an emphasis on getting them to demonstrate they are committed to setting up a life here. They are encouraged to renew their work visas, integrate into society, demonstrate a pattern of earnings over a number of years and then invited to apply for residency by the Government. 

"I don't know what they're going to do with us to be honest. And that's what is scary."

However, as people like Federica Benedet are finding, that has a major cost when the political tide turns against them and targets for residency approvals are stuck in Cabinet or reduced substantially while the number of people let in on temporary visas is ramped up so there are more applicants for fewer places.

"It's not fair at all. We've been here for so long and paid our taxes and paid all of our fees.

"I don't know what they're going to do with us to be honest. And that's what is scary."

"You can't make plans. Like after five years and half you still feel like you're just temporary here and you can't have any certainty."

The skilled migrant queue she is in has ballooned to over 38,000 applications. Combine that with those waiting for family residency applications to be approved and that rises to over 48,000. The historical significance of this rise can be seen in the graph below which charts the number of skilled residency applications on hand back to 2009.

That backlog is enough to overwhelm the current residency planning range target of 37,000 residency visa approvals per year that the Government has set itself. 

Temporary migrants can only apply for residency when they're invited to by the Government after a pre-approval 'expression of interest' process that tells them whether their application is likely to succeed or not before they pay $2700 to apply. 

If their application legitimately meets the criteria, the Government then has no choice, but to grant it once it's in the queue. However, there is no time-limit on how long the Government can take to make that decision or process those applications. 

And thanks to Covid-19, their situation is even more tenuous. If they lose their job while in the queue, they have to find a job quickly or lose their shot at residency.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway blamed Covid-19 for disrupting Immigration New Zealand's processing of residency applications.

"They lost some processing capacity during that time. That is now back online and they're working their way through those applications.

"The important thing, of course, is the change in policy that has been applied which means both the 'priority' queue and 'non-priority' queue are moving.

"Under the old policy, the non-priority queue wasn't moving at all."

However, National Party Immigration spokesman Stuart Smith said from what he could see the queue hadn't moved before, after or during lockdown despite a move to group people into "priority" and "non-priority" queues in February.

"I don't think it's right. It's bad manners quite frankly.

"I'm just wondering: is the hold-up on this [that] they're having second thoughts on whether they should allow these people to get residency?"

Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin said the application processing times were still "painfully slow" despite the change.

"I've got people who haven't even had their case hit a desk and they applied before December, 2018."

An Official Information Act request from one frustrated migrant stuck in the queue would seem to back both Smith and Martin up. 

Renoh Chalakkal applied for a residency visa in September last year and was told in December that INZ were still processing applications from December 11, 2018. 

Chalakkal was lucky enough to be one of seven students to get a scholarship from Education NZ for his four-year PhD into electrical engineering, which he used to conduct research into medical image processing at the University of Auckland.

His CV doesn't count for much. He's stuck in the same residency queue as everybody else. 

In February he asked about the queue again and was told INZ was hung up on the same application from nearly two years ago.

When he asked for clarification via an OIA in May, INZ confirmed the queue hadn't moved in over six months.

"My friends they lost the job ... and they're in trouble now.

"So when the case is taken up if they don't have a job then they directly reject it [the application].

"They don't see how many months they waited in the queue meeting all the criteria that they have set."

The planning range

New Zealand has operated a 'planning range' of 45,000 to 50,000 residency approvals per year since the early 2000s, and this has often been expressed as a two-year range from 90,000 to 100,000.

The previous National government lowered the range to 85,000 from 95,000 for the two years to June 2018, which meant the annual allowance fell from 47,500 to 45,000.

The current Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Government lowered that again to between 50,000 to 60,000 for the period from July 1, 2018 to December 31, 2019, effectively lowering the annual rate of 37,000 for the period that expired at the end of last year.

Both Labour and NZ First promised to cut immigration, but have continued to let large numbers of temporary workers into the country.

An attempt to pass a new target when the old one expired in December hit the rocks in Cabinet. So the old target of approximately 37,000 per year remains. 

Martin said numbers affected how INZ allocated their processing resources. 

"If your target's 20,000 and you say, well in the first month of the 12 over which this target applies we've got to 20,000, your choice is either 'approve the 20,000 and approve nothing for the rest of the year' or 'we've got the approvals, but measure out the issuing'.

"The problem is, of course they don't know how many people they're going to decline. So they just keep on processing and they just sort of try to manage the approvals to make sure they're all falling within the programme parameters."

While the residency approval target was cut, the number of people in New Zealand on temporary work visas and student visas (often with work rights) more than doubled to nearly 290,000 over the last decade under both flavours of government.

Back in 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants on temporary visas for 47,000 residency visas: a ratio of 2.65 to one. Now there is the potential for 290,000 applicants for 37,000 permanent places: a ratio of 7.84 to one.

Benedet, a 35-year-old migrant from Italy who initially came over on a working holiday visa, has lived here for nearly six years and is currently on unpaid maternity leave raising her five-month old baby daughter.

It's unpaid because she expected to be out of the residency queue by now and able to move across the country to live with her Tauranga-based partner.

While INZ processes her residency application, she has to choose between earning money by returning to her job in Christchurch (without her partner) or living with no income so that she can stay with the father of her child. 

Her work visa is tied to her employer and to Christchurch. Although her job as a tattoo artist is not on the skills shortage list, she is eligible for residency because her international reputation allows her to command a high wage for the job.

She has been stuck in the queue for 15 months.

"If they approve everything and then people can make plans and they can make this economy run again you can buy a house and you can open your business."

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