INZ attempts to justify massive visa backlog

At last week’s committee hearing, MPs including National’s Erica Stanford and Green’s Ricardo Menéndez put questions to Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi and a panel of INZ senior management. Many of the questions concerned the backlog of residence visa applications, the largest in New Zealand’s history. INZ responded with excuses that ranged from flimsy to downright implausible. Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin reacts to their claims.

Currently, 67 case officers are processing one case a week each. Five years ago, the same number of officers were making a decision 1.2 times a day.

Why the dramatic slowdown in productivity?

Immigration New Zealand claims that more applicants are coming from countries requiring stringent risk management and background checks, many with poor information-sharing systems. Because most of these applicants are onshore, they’ve supposedly had difficulty accessing information from their home countries due to COVID.

I say this is disingenuous, as the backlog of cases predates March 2020. This means that the applications must have had all the necessary documentation to be accepted.

INZ says that most applications are paper-based, and it takes time to digitise files and transfer them every time Auckland goes into lockdown: “Residence applications are just one thing we do. More than 500 staff are working in support of MBIE and other government organisations.”

But why haven’t they prioritised moving to online applications for this category, a relatively easy thing to scale up? And why did they reduce their global footprint? INZ began closing offshore offices years ago but failed to maintain effective verification systems and working relationships. The whole ‘structural change’ excuse seems a bit thin, unless they are acknowledging that it has been badly mismanaged and poorly thought out with regard to downstream implications, such as the capacity to verify information in offshore jurisdictions.

In March 2021, we were not in lockdown, yet just 93 cases were processed per week – the lowest it’s ever been. (Figures from the last six months range from 127 in February 2021 to 230 in November 2020.) Most of these cases are work to residence, not skilled migrant, which are simple to evaluate because all documentation is generated on shore. All INZ would be verifying is that the applicant has worked there continuously for the required period, is still working there, and still meets the health requirements.

While they alluded to resource planning for two-year targets, INZ wouldn’t admit that the slowdown is deliberate, even though that’s exactly what it is: Go slow, as you are still working on old targets and don’t want to the inadvertently blow numbers out.

Instead, Faafoi said, “We are working our way through a staged approach to some of the other factors we have been given advice on. It’s one thing to make a decision, but your ability to implement that in a way that doesn’t give people false hope or make wait times or demand on MIQ worse are the kind of factors we take into consideration.”

“I don’t think the length of time is that unusual,” added one of the advisors. “With international comparisons, in some areas, you would wait 10 years for certain applications to go through.”

It’s a bit like the All Blacks saying, “After a long losing streak, we’re still better than the worst-performing team in the league.” Why are we measuring ourselves against the worst losers? Hardly a winning mindset, this attitude of “if you at least do the bare minimum, you’ve achieved.”

 What about split migrant families?

The INZ management team said they had not given advice to ministers in the last year. “We were more focused on what we needed to do at the border, sorting things out for onshore migrants, and making sure people weren’t stuck here and unlawful. We are now in the process of giving the minister advice about EOI selections and the scope for any SMC review” as well as looking into automating simple approvals like visitor visas.

According to INZ, processing border exemptions is an entirely new and complex function with strict criteria. It required the dedicated resources of an entire office, including numerous support staff and accelerated training. As INZ continues to operationalise these decisions, they plan to move from product-based to tasked-based staff so that the work becomes more transferable.

Faafoi pointed out that the COVID pandemic is getting its second wind overseas, “so our priority is to keep those who are here safe. We acknowledge difficult decisions putting some families in a difficult position. We are letting a limited number in, but the bar is very high.”

 What about industry?

Faafoi accused Stanford of focusing on smaller cohorts like the migrant nurses just to get media attention and pointed to the 2000 Recognised Seasonal Employer workers who have been allowed in: “We are supporting construction to make sure they’ve got critical workers. So while you focus on the headlines, we’re bringing other people into the country to make sure our economy can keep moving.”

But 2000 seasonal workers won’t help other businesses survive if they can’t access skills, and the number let in for construction is pitiful. Two thousand RSE workers cannot begin to address the deeper issues the construction industry is facing.

Faafoi says the government’s priority is thinking about what can be done to make jobs and training available to New Zealanders in the long term, with pay and conditions that attract New Zealanders. He believes the new employer-led system defined by job availability rather than setting bars is the answer, though salary bands will still be part of the criteria and subject to SMC review.

The panel spoke of a two-pronged strategy: “Onshore, we’re rolling over stand-down periods till the end of December 2021 and extending visas,” allowing 7000 workers who would have had to leave to remain in New Zealand. “Offshore, we started off tight then wedged the door open for border exceptions. We have 300 arrivals a day compared to 20,000 a day before. We’re focused on bringing in right mix of people.”

But the rollover of stand-down periods is for low-skilled workers, so how does that benefit businesses who need skilled workers? The Other Critical Worker border exception still yields little benefit to most New Zealand businesses, who will now fall prey to recruitment pressure as Australia seeks to poach skilled workers in our market.

Do you have immigration questions that need answering? Contact Aaron Martin at NZ Immigration Law for honest, practical advice on your situation. Whether you’ve been separated from your family by COVID or you’re a skilled or seasonal worker, we can help. 

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