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'I don't have a right to dream' - Teen overstayer faces a life of uncertainty

12:42 pm on 25 August 2023

Most teenagers born in New Zealand grow up dreaming of a bright future.

Seventeen-year-old Dhruv*, however, finds it hard to draw up specific plans in terms of what he wants to do with his life.

"Kids my age have dreams," he says. "I don't even have a right to dream."

Dhruv is an overstayer, holding no official residency status after his parents remained in New Zealand beyond the duration of their work visas almost 20 years ago. The teenager is caught in the unusual situation of living in New Zealand illegally despite being born here.

And he's not alone. Immigration New Zealand estimates from 2017 show that approximately 14,000 people are believed to be in a similar position.

Immigration New Zealand has been increasingly deporting Chinese and Indian overstayers in recent years. Of 19 overstayers deported between July 2022 and April, 10 were Chinese and four were Indian.

Dhruv is an overstayer, holding no official residency status after his parents remained in New Zealand beyond the duration of their work visas almost 20 years ago.

Dhruv is an overstayer, holding no official residency status after his parents remained in New Zealand beyond the duration of their work visas almost 20 years ago. Photo: Quin Tauetau

"It's not fair," he says. "Even if I want to be honest and tell someone, you can't because, if you do, you're probably going to regret it."

Dhruv's parents migrated to New Zealand from India more than 20 years ago. His father initially found work as a sales manager, subsequently bringing over his wife.

However, both failed to renew their visas a few years after their arrival. Dhruv believes people took advantage of his parents' situation at the time.

"The lawyers were charging a lot of money and (my parents) received a lot of misguidances due to bad communications," he says. "Being from India, English was a problem."

In 2002, his mother gave birth to a daughter, who received citizenship by virtue of the fact she was born in New Zealand and her parents were on valid work visas, although these expired the following year.

However, the government discontinued this practice in 2006 a few months before Dhruv was born, leaving the infant without any recognisable residency status.

Over the next few years, the family was always on the move, as they were terrified of being caught.

"This constant relocation had an impact," he recalls. "Any friend made was gone by the next week."

In 2007, the family made yet another attempt to legitimise their stay. However, the lawyer handling their case not only failed to secure visas, they left the country - taking Dhruv's Indian passport with them.

"I have no documents," he says. "I really have no power."

The lack of documentation severely limits the career choices Dhruv can pursue after his graduation from high school. While his sister can attend university due to holding citizenship, Dhruv can't even begin contemplating tertiary education. He can't even obtain a driver's license.

Dhruv fears deportation, as he has never set foot in India.

"Being sent back to India would be incredibly tough for both my family and me," he says. "We have nothing there and leaving my sister here while she's young and still studying would be heart-wrenching."

His struggle is compounded by his limited proficiency in reading and writing Hindi.

Dhruv says the past two decades have affected his parents badly.

"My dad's family started passing away when we were kids and he was often quite sad that we couldn't do anything," he says. "It took a toll on my dad, who often felt helpless."

The emergence of Covid-19 added to the family's troubles, as they were ineligible for any subsidies or cash handouts, and it was difficult to access proper healthcare.

"If you think Covid-19 was hard, it was even harder for those who are overstayers because we had to struggle to even go to work," he says.

Thirty-four-year-old Amandeep* is an overstayer who fears being separated from his 6-year-old daughter.

Thirty-four-year-old Amandeep* is an overstayer who fears being separated from his 6-year-old daughter Photo: RNZ / Blessen Tom

Young families

Thirty-four-year-old Amandeep* faces his own battle as an overstayer in New Zealand, one that's even more complicated now that he's the proud father of a 6-year-old daughter.

"I'm doing everything for my baby," he says.

Arriving in New Zealand in 2011 wanting to complete a degree at university, Amandeep's plan took an unexpected turn. Despite pouring more than $20,000 into his visa applications, he has been denied five times.

He faces increased responsibility as a father and, now that he has a child to support, he says he refuses to be deported.

"I want to be in her life," he says. "This is home now."

With his sixth visa application pending, Amandeep wants to stay by his daughter's side and build a stable life.

Twenty-nine-year-old Ranjit* finds himself in a similar situation, with a child on the way despite overstaying his visa. Arriving in New Zealand as a student, Ranjit's education ended after his college was blacklisted by Immigration New Zealand in 2015.

"I couldn't pay more fees," he says.

Ranjit found employment at an orchard in Tauranga, although he was restricted to working 15-25 hours a week for just $10 an hour.

"There were hundreds of other overstayers on the farm," he says.

Facing increasing Immigration New Zealand crackdowns, Ranjit left the orchard after three years.

"Life was really tough at the orchards," he says.

Leveraging his New Zealand driver's license, he found part-time driving jobs on Facebook, some of which didn't require a visa. His current employer has been supportive as he navigates the visa application process, yet the impending arrival of his child fills him with anxiety.

Ranjit, like many others, is haunted by the spectre of deportation and the possibility of needing to leave his child behind.

Labour MP Andrew Little

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Vijender*, a 31-year-old with aspirations of starting a family, remains trapped in his visa quandary.

"I cannot (start a family) because of this issue," he says.

Much like his fellow overstayers, Vijender's dreams have been hampered by his visa status since 2017.

A passion for dairy farming led him to New Zealand, where he secured a job post-graduation. However, his initial work visa application was rejected due to a mismatch between his job and his education. Accepting work in cafes and restaurants for visa validity, Vijender's aspirations were crushed when immigration rules subsequently changed, throwing his life into uncertainty.

Today, his dream of starting a family is on hold due to his precarious visa situation.

"I had to give up my relationship because of my situation," he says.

Exploitation woes

Throughout his journey, Amandeep has been exploited by some employers who have taken advantage of his situation, leaving him cornered. This issue reached a breaking point earlier this year after a manager reportedly assaulted him because he had requested overtime pay.

"He hit me, and I had no option but to resign," Amandeep says. He believes that if he had been in a legal position, such abuse would not have taken place.

Ranjit and Vijender have also been exploited by their employers, as they're typically aware of their overstayer status.

"I was paid only $300 per week despite working for more than 80 hours," says Vijender, who was working as an assistant manager at a Hamilton restaurant in 2015.

Ranjit experienced similar conditions while working in Tauranga.

Victims of interpretation

Harris Gu, an immigration lawyer in Auckland, says overstayers are devoid of rights.

"They can't stay, they have no access to the health system and their life is difficult," Gu says.

Gu believes children of overstayers shouldn't face deportation but instead be offered a path to residency.

"Children of overstayers shouldn't be made victims," he says.

Harris Gu, a lawyer for Queen City Law

Harris Gu, a lawyer for Queen City Law. Photo: Supplied

Under existing legislation, individuals have few options once their visas expire. One option is to apply for a Section 61 visa request under the Immigration Act of 2009.

According to Immigration New Zealand's website, Section 61 empowers the minister of immigration to grant a visa of any type to a person unlawfully in New Zealand and otherwise liable for deportation (unless a deportation order applies) at their "absolute discretion".

The provision also stipulates that there is no obligation to consider the request or conduct further inquiries.

"Another option after the rejection of the Section 61 request is to go directly to the minister's office to request a special direction to be granted, but as overstayers they don't have any rights to apply for visas and any request they make will be made in the absolute discretion of the decision maker," Gu says.

"Absolute discretion" implies that a decision maker is not obliged to provide a reason for their decision and can even decline to consider the request without explanation.

Gu argues that such an assessment is subjective.

"Consider a scenario where the decision maker is having a bad day and is inundated with Section 61 requests to process," he says. "In the current setup, they could lawfully reject requests based on their own authority. In my view, that is pretty unfair."

Gu calls on the government to revise existing legislation so that children such as Dhruv have a better shot at a promising life.

"The law was introduced to prevent people from becoming overstayers as a preventive measure," he says. "I believe the law should be amended to spare children of overstayers from falling victim to it."

Simon Sanders, deputy chief operating officer of Immigration New Zealand, says children of people who have overstayed are eligible for vaccinations and other WellChild services, but not dental subsidies. They are also able to attend primary and secondary schools.

Freddy Ernst, senior policy manager at the Ministry of Education, said all students in New Zealand aged 6-16 years are entitled to an education, including children of overstayers. However, children of overstayers do not get further support when seeking tertiary education.

Immigration chief Andrew Little says he is considering the ministry's policy on overstayers, noting that, as a matter of fairness, his office needs to weigh the impact of any change in policy on other visa holders who fully comply with the conditions of their visa.

"I am currently considering advice on what to do for those whose immigration status is now irregular, but it is unlikely a decision will be made before the election."

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the overstayer

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