Lower staff numbers at Immigration NZ blamed for visa 'bottleneck'

11:21 am on 20 April 2022

Immigration New Zealand is being blamed for restricting how many migrant workers, students and visitors can come into the country.

Mounir Ziati has been waiting for a skilled migrant (SMC) residence visa for 30 months

Mounir Ziati and his family. Photo: Supplied

Travellers from a country needing visas to enter New Zealand, such as China, India and South Africa, have to wait till October under the government's current border timeline, unless they have an existing visa or border exemption.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has 20 percent fewer staff than before the pandemic and has been juggling the surge in one-off residence visas and an overhaul of work visas.

But it denied its ability to process visas was the sole factor in the delay to re-opening to the rest of the world.

Mounir Ziati has been waiting for his skilled migrant (SMC) residence application to be decided since October 2019.

"So basically from October 2019 to now it's been almost 30 months," he said. "We put everything aside because our decision was to move to New Zealand with this idea that everything will be done within six months.

"We have information that there are only 10 case officers processing all the SMC applications, both general and priority, and the other resources were transferred to the Residence Visa 2021."

About 1200 of the 2600 people in the same situation are, like him, still overseas and some have been waiting for a decision since Christmas 2018, despite reaching the immigration points threshold.

"We know that the vast majority of applicants like me don't have a job offer. To earn 160 points without a job offer in New Zealand you have to be very, very skilled, have a high degree diploma, a master's degree and so on. So basically we are a lot of skilled people who are waiting and putting on hold your life."

Ziati, however, counts himself luckier than many as his French citizenship means he does not need a visa to visit - so he and his partner and five-year-old son are coming next month.

Ministers cited INZ capacity issues as a factor in delaying non-visa-waiver arrivals for another six months, but said they would see if they could bring that date forward.

Officials said they were ready to process the 5000 border exceptions the government had announced for students.

Capacity was only part of the reason for the October date for other visas, INZ's acting deputy secretary of labour, science, and enterprise Ruth Isaac told parliament's Education and Workforce Committee.

"So how many students we could do in the middle of the year for semester two, was alongside decisions about opening other visa categories, the resident visa 2021 processing, and what could be managed without significant trade-offs," Isaac said.

"Ministers had a range of options to choose between, and that's where they landed. Larger numbers would have made perhaps slower processing of critical worker border exceptions or other things. So it's about the balance across students, workers, family and other categories that ministers wish to open."

Impact on economy - National

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Penny Simmonds Photo:

The constraint the economy was suffering through labour shortages, tourism and international education losses was incredibly damaging, said National MP Penny Simmonds.

"So we've got this incredible bottleneck because Immigration New Zealand is not able to process quickly enough across all these areas to get our industries going at full speed again, whether it's in the critical worker or the international student visas. We have got a bottleneck because of Immigration New Zealand capacity."

Immigration was not the only factor, Isaac said.

"Ministers took into account the volumes of arrivals they wanted to have in light of the potential Omicron peak and remember those decisions were taken before we were in the middle of it. They were waiting for the travel declaration system to be in place so that we had automatic ways to ensure that people were meeting the health criteria for entry to New Zealand, which has just come into place.

"And they were trying to balance a number of things. And they've also been quite aware that doing everything at once is a way to create large queues, and having a staged process is the best way for us to do a good job at every step of the process."

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, announcing the border re-opening timeframe last month, said visa capacity was key to its decision.

"The major issue here is not a question of safety, but a question of the ability to process those new visas in a timely way - keeping in mind we're already dealing with a large number of people who are now being made residents through recent decisions and gearing back up a lot of visa processing."

Staff numbers

INZ figures show it has 179 fewer workers than before the pandemic.

Since December, it has received 91,000 applications for 181,000 people to get residence under the government's fast-track scheme. And next month, the twice-delayed Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) will begin to replace six work permit categories, with the first visas due in July.

Immigration's general manager of border and visa operations, Nicola Hogg, said it was recruiting for more New Zealand staff and has opened a second office in Christchurch after closing three overseas offices last year.

"INZ is constantly reviewing our capacity and capability to ensure we have the right level of resources to process anticipated incoming visa volumes.

"The new staff we hire are trained across a number of different visa categories as we are always training and moving staff between different visa categories, depending on incoming visa volumes. We will continue to do this as we process 2021 Resident Visas, while also opening offshore applications in line with the government's Reconnecting New Zealand plan.

"INZ currently has 658 Immigration officers processing and making decisions on visa applications. In February 2020 when the borders closed due to Covid-19, INZ had 837 Immigration Officers processing visa applications in Auckland, Christchurch, Porirua, Hamilton, Palmerston North and in overseas offices."

Some migrants worry about how quickly they may get visas approved once they are able to apply in October, especially split families wanting to reunite before Christmas.

For others with expiring visas, October will be too late.

Figures released to the Green party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menendez March show an average of 20,000 visas expire each month from now till October.

Migrant Jagdeep Singh, who had a post-study work visa but was in India when the border closed, said more than 80 percent of visas had already expired.

"It's discrimination with us," he said. "We want to extend our visa or get a replacement visa same as in Australia. Our future and life has been totally destroyed, it's against humanity. Nobody has listened to us."

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