Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been the death knell of New Zealand immigration as we know it, it also presents a much-needed opportunity for improvement. What might the new immigration system look like? Aaron Martin, principal lawyer at New Zealand Immigration Law, explains the latest news and its possible ramifications.

Starting 10 August 2020, people outside of New Zealand will not be able to apply for temporary visas for 3 months.

What’s behind the change?

When our borders closed back in March, the New Zealand government stopped processing visas for all overseas applicants other than those who met strict exception criteria.

Nonetheless, people continued to submit applications expecting them to be processed, creating a backlog of more than 27,000 people and triggering the government’s decision to press pause.

In with the new

For better or worse, the old system is now defunct. The question will be whether it resumes in its pre-COVID form once the border resumes normal operations.

Under what we assume will be a Labour government, we can expect the likely reopening of the border to be a staged process with a progressive rollout of further exceptions to border closure, until normal border operations resume (if and when that happens).

The new visa system will be the exception to border closure. Think of it as a door being opened incrementally to certain classes of people whom the government deems necessary according to its priorities at that time.

Immigration New Zealand must manage entry because of managed isolation capacity, and that’s going to be an ongoing, ever-present driver for them. They can no longer operate by the old system of ‘lodge it whenever you want to.’

They’re basically saying, ‘Now we don’t care whether you want to come to New Zealand; it’s whether we want you to come. If we don’t want you to come, and you are not within the class of people we consider essential, please don’t apply or we won’t let you apply.’ As such, the government will instruct INZ to continue to make adjustments to meet the demand it feels it needs to provide jobs for New Zealanders—and meet its own infrastructure goals.

Applications from overseas generate significant government revenue, much of which has been lost with the closing of our borders due to COVID. It may be a year or more before they reopen, so even though it may seem unfriendly, the suspension is entirely practical and appropriate. Otherwise, people will lodge applications that INZ is not going to process, and what’s the point of that? They’ll just be clogging up the system.

Potential problems

The thing I do take issue with is the hard cut-off date. Many applicants are still in the process of obtaining police and medical clearance, and if they can’t file them by 10 August, their documents will expire and they’ll be forced to redo them.

Why does this matter? The cost of repeating the required medical exams alone can in some countries be the equivalent of an entire month’s wages, a burdensome cost sometimes greater than the visa application fee. A bigger window to allow people more time would have been the more humane thing to do.

Picking who can enter seems to be based on  political whim—not a fair criteria

As we move from an employer, education, and a tourism-driven system, where applications are motivated by a person’s private desire to come to New Zealand, to a system driven by the government’s perception of need and importance, it’s going to be a case of “it’s anyone’s guess” as to who gets a shot at applying for a visa and gaining entry.

What about work visa holders?

Yet another glaring issue: Still no provision has been made for those who hold work visas but are currently overseas, effectively locked out of the country, given that only citizens and residents can return. The new rules make it clear what the government’s priorities are but fail to address the needs of those building lives in New Zealand.

It’s like the old adage, ‘If you do nothing for long enough, the problem disappears.’ Their job disappears and with it their dream—and, for a large number, their residence eligibility. The government incorrectly assumes that unemployed New Zealanders will fill these jobs, but many are either unqualified or want to hold out for job opportunities better suited to their skill level, rather than just taking any job that may be available.

The bottom line is, there’s going to be a lot of carnage and a lot of people are going to get burned, specifically people who have work visas and jobs but not residency. Residence cases depend on the applicant having a job and typically take two or more years to conclude while in New Zealand.

Work visa holders have good reason to be fearful that they may lose their ability to acquire residence due to matters beyond their control and as a consequence of government decision-making, despite having contributed to our economy, our country, and investing a lot of time and hard work towards that goal. As someone on social media put it, “We have been looted by the government.” I can understand that sentiment.

My advice to migrants

What exactly does this mean for applicants? Simply put, if you’re overseas, for the foreseeable future, you’re not coming in until you fall within a class of exceptions. Now, rather than being driven by the private sector and applicant motivation—that is, whether you wish to come to New Zealand to visit, study, work, or live—entry will be dictated solely by government need.

If you’ve already submitted a temporary visa application and are overseas, there is one bit of good news: You can withdraw your application and request a refund.

If you’re thinking about submitting one, don’t bother. It won’t be processed, and you’ll waste money on not only the application itself but also any accompanying documents that expire and have to be redone.

Aaron Martin is a Principal Immigration Lawyer at New Zealand Immigration Law

Aaron Martin is one of New Zealand's most highly regarded and experienced immigration law practitioners. He has extensive experience assisting individuals, SMEs, and large multi-national corporate clients.