Immigration New Zealand has spelt out how high pay takes skilled workers to the top of a priority list after complaints to the Ombudsman about its unpublished fast-track processing policy.
INZ says it will prioritise fewer residence applications, bringing hope to some of the thousands of people who have been waiting in a queue behind others.
Some have been waiting since 2018.
INZ said it would now prioritise skilled migrant (SMC) and residence from work visas for immigrants with an annual salary of $106,080 or jobs needing occupational registration.
The announcement is bad news for lower-paid talent (accredit employer) applicants who had been prioritised until now.
Unpublished criteria to fast-track certain applications have been used internally since the middle of 2018, replacing "first-in, first-out" decision-making.
Immigration adviser Erin Goodhue said the timing of Monday's announcement suggested it was in response to ombudsman complaints, including her own, questioning the validity of INZ's process.
The ombudsman's office last month said it was investigating a high volume of related complaints, she said.
"I'm still disappointed that they have confirmed that they are going to go ahead with this method of allocation," she added.
"I am encouraged that they have said that they are going to resume allocation from the main queue. I don't like to be cynical, but I'll believe it when I see it.
"Because I can't see from the information they've put out what's changed that means they've now got the capacity to be dealing with what they're saying is just a larger than expected volume.
"I don't see them putting this announcement out as being a solution to what is quite frankly a real big mess."
Immigrants have reacted with dismay to INZ's approach, she said.
"Like me, they are quite disappointed that it's taken INZ this long to be transparent," she said. "This is the very first public announcement that they've made about it. But I think people are encouraged by the claim that they are going to resume the allocation of the main queue.
"But again, I think people are a little bit cynical about how fast that's going to happen - yes, they may be reviewing applications but again it's still surely going to be a very, very long slow process going forward until they clear the backlog."
The criteria to prioritise was arbitrary, she added, as all skilled migrant applications involved people with occupations the country needed.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) figures show a quarter of SMC residence applications take more than a year and one in 10 wait more than 15 months.
A letter from INZ to an applicant this month said it was currently allocating applications to case officers that were received in early December 2018.
Ms Goodhue said that date has not changed since July last year because people were being picked out of the queue for faster processing.
Among residence partnership applications, immigration would now prioritise partners of residents who have been out of the country for more than two years, and partners of citizens, according to guidance that also came out on Monday.
The guidelines show the quickest applications to be allocated to a case officer, before work and business visas, are residence visas for victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks and their families.
Applications from parents wanting to join their immigrant children in New Zealand, a category which re-opened this month with tighter eligibility criteria, are at the bottom of the priority list.
INZ said it was introducing the changes because it was receiving so many applications meeting the priority criteria, that other applications were no longer being allocated.
It said it is able to process visas more urgently if the circumstances warrant it.
More information is available at https://www.immigration.govt.nz/about-us/media-centre/news-notifications/how-we-prioritise-resident-visa-applications