Immigration Minister has used special powers given by New Zealand parliament under the hurriedly enacted Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment ACT 2020 in May last year, eighteen times thus far.

Kirsty Hutchison, Immigration Policy Manager at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, told the Indian Weekender in response to a query regarding the number of times the Minister had used those special powers since May 2020 when this law was first enacted.

The latest decision where Immigration Minister had used those special powers was on Friday, February 19, about the easing of visa restrictions for visitors in New Zealand.

In May this year, twelve months will complete since the special powers bestowed on the Immigration Minister under Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment ACT 2020 as an urgent response to Covid-19 lockdown and border closure and will automatically lapse.

According to many media reports in late April 2020, there were around 350,000 temporary visa holders onshore – of which 200,000 may have held work visas where those employment conditions may need to be varied; 70,000+ student visa holders may need visa conditions relaxed to enable them to change their course or work extra hours until education providers are able to open again, and 55,000+ visitor visa holders may need to continue to have the expiry date of their visas extended if commercial flights out of New Zealand continue to be unavailable.

This was over and beyond tens of thousands of temporary visa holders who were stuck overseas at the time of border closure and continue to remain stranded overseas as the government continues to drip-feed only a small number back into the country.

It was in response to these mammoth challenges related to immigration arising from sudden border closure that the law was then rushed through the Parliament at record speed after being first introduced on May 5, 2020, first reading (May 5), Second Reading (May 12-14), Royal Assent (May 14) and eventually entering into force on May 15.

At that time, many observers had expressed concern about the speed of the enactment of the law and the need for those seemingly sweeping and discretionary powers for the Immigration Minister.

The government had then assuaged those concerns saying that such discretionary powers were necessary for the Minister to act expeditiously for a large group of temporary migrant workers who could otherwise be not helped by Immigration New Zealand under existing powers and framework.

Given that it has been nine months since the law was first enacted, the Indian Weekender had sent a query to INZ to understand how effectively those powers were used.

In that regard, September and December last year has been the months when the maximum number of decisions were taken by the Minister using those special powers (seven & four times respectively).

Some of the key decisions taken in the month of September by the Minister using these powers include Vary travel conditions on resident visas to extend the time available for offshore resident visa holders with expired travel conditions to travel to New Zealand, Grant resident visas to offshore persons whose resident visas are no longer valid to extend the time available for their travel to New Zealand; Extend visas held by certain employer-assisted workers, and by the partners and dependants of work visa holders, to enable them to remain lawfully in New Zealand (and to work, study, or visit as appropriate).

There were around 5,600 resident visa holders who were offshore in September 2020 with travel conditions that had either expired or were to expire soon that may have benefited from Minister’s decision under those powers.

One of the earliest decisions taken by the Immigration Minister potentially helping a large cohort of temporary visa holders (16,500) was in July 2020 related to extend temporary work visas to enable people whose visas would other expire to remain and work lawfully in New Zealand.

The months of October and November were expectedly quieter with the elections and new government formation process, with only two decisions being taken at the start of the month related to Grant supplementary seasonal employment visas to onshore persons whose visas are expiring and Grant new RSE limited visas to persons who were previously granted limited visas as stranded RSE workers.

The powers will automatically lapse by mid-May this year – with thousands of temporary visa holders, including partners of NZ citizens, residents and work visa holders, post-study work visa holders, open work visa holders, among others – still stuck overseas.

It remains to be seen if the Minister for Immigration will be using those unprecedented special powers to allow thousands of temporary visa holders who were ordinarily resident in New Zealand back into the country before the special powers lapses soon.