Overseas workers are being 'consigned to the rubbish heap' after the government left them with no option except returning home, according to an immigration adviser.
Skilled migrants stuck in lengthy queues for residence have been told if they are not eligible for another temporary visa while they wait, they will have to leave.
Anthea Razack, with her husband and two children, applied for residence as a travel agency manager in January 2019.
She wasn't allocated an immigration case officer until 20 months later. One was assigned to her last month - less than a fortnight after being made redundant. Then she saw an email being sent out to advisers and applicants, telling them to leave if they are not eligible for another visa.
"It was just so stressful waiting almost 20 months for a case officer to be assigned, when we were told it would take a maximum of nine months.
"It was absolutely devastating when the case officer was assigned literally two weeks after I lost my job. And then they send an email like this, it's just heartless."
The family had planned to stay here long term, so the advice to leave was a shock, Razack said.
"All our stuff is here, we came across with a container, and our dog too, and now he's turning 11. So to see an email like that where they tell you; 'well if you can't get a visa, if you can't find work you need to make plans to go' - how do I move my 11-year-old dog back to South Africa?
"And that's just the dog, he's a part of my family, but can you imagine my family, my kids? It's like a slap in the face."
Fortunately for Razack she has been offered another job, and still hopes her residence visa will be approved.
About 51,000 people are waiting for decisions on their residence.
That number has gone up 10,000 since the start of the year, as Immigration New Zealand (INZ) processing capability was reduced by lockdown and overseas office closures, while applications continued to pour in.
The long visa delays have also been caused by lowered government residence targets, and a prioritisation of some applications above others already in the queue.
The coalition decided to lower residence numbers to between 50,000 and 60,000 for the period from July 2018 to the end of 2019, and no decision was made on a new residence programme (NZRP) this year, so that framework is still being used.
That is down from the 2016-18 range of 85,000 to 95,000 residence visas.
More than half of those waiting are skilled migrants already living in New Zealand.
'Not the Kiwi way'
Immigration adviser Toni Alexander said applicants had done everything right, but the delays in some cases meant they would not be automatically granted another work visa while they wait for residence.
Some overseas workers, still employed, had applied for new temporary visas and had been rejected - because their job should now go to a New Zealander.
Employers were being told when they want to renew their staff member's visa, they had to first advertise their job. But "under employment law you can't advertise somebody's job while they're still in the job," said Alexander.
The email telling residence applicants about leaving the country was clumsy, unfair and unkind, she said. It was 'not the Kiwi way' to treat immigrants like that - and they were rightly outraged.
"They'll go back to the UK, to Europe, to South Africa, to the Americas, where there are highly skilled people, and they'll say 'don't go to New Zealand - we went there, we worked, we paid, we paid, we paid to Immigration New Zealand and then they said "get out" '.
"People who have their whole lives here, children often born and growing up here, and are valuable to an employer - thus making more jobs possible for Kiwis, often having been the ones to train them, will now be thrown on the rubbish heap.
"INZ have all their thousands of dollars they paid over the years, they can get rid of them and let someone else go through the same soul-destroying process."
Employers would be left in the lurch if skilled migrant workers were not allowed to stay on while their residence was finalised, she added.
Top earners prioritised
The email to immigration advisers, which is also being sent to applicants, spells out that only those who earn at least twice the average wage, or need professional registration, are being prioritised.
"Applicants who do not meet the prioritisation criteria for allocation, and are no longer eligible for another temporary visa, should make a plan to depart New Zealand if they can no longer remain here lawfully," it said.
In a statement, Immigration NZ said it sent the email to keep applicants updated.
It was committed to processing visa applications as quickly as possible, but its role was to process and approve applications in line with the residence programme (NZRP) numbers set by the Government.
"INZ is resourced in line with the NZRP, not in line with the number of residence applications received, and due to the significant increase in the number of resident visa applications received under the Skilled Migrant Category and Residence from Work category, processing times have increased," a spokesperson said.
"INZ acknowledges that applicants have paid a fee for their residence applications and they are currently waiting for their application to be processed. INZ also acknowledges that waiting for their application may be stressful, particularly when individuals have lost their job, or their temporary visa is close to, or has expired.
"While INZ understands that this situation may be distressing for some applicants, individuals whose visas have or are about to expire, and who don't qualify for another temporary visa will need to make plans to depart New Zealand and await the outcome of their residence application offshore."
But Toni Alexander said the idea those migrants' residence would be approved once they returned home was flawed, because many were only eligible as a result of their skilled job - that they will not be doing if they have left the country.