Patrick and Doris Boucher’s granddaughter Chloe is pleading for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to let her grandparents into New Zealand.
Kiwis who want to come home are frustrated at not being able to get into “Fortress New Zealand.” But the frustrations are just as real for those who are becoming Kiwi by choice. Georgia May Gilbertson talks to some of those who are desperately trying to stay in Aotearoa or reunite with their families and their jobs.
When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last year talked about the “team of five million,” Layeeq Baig thought she was including him.
After all, he’s been “working tirelessly” for the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board as a procurement specialist, including as part of the Covid-19 response team during lockdown.
The job involved long hours and weekends, but Baig, who had lived in Hawke’s Bay for almost six years, said it was the most satisfying work he’d ever had.
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Layeeq Baig was an essential worker for the Hawke’s Bay District Health board, but can no longer get back to New Zealand due to strict immigration regulations.
Baig was on a “work to residence” visa and said had his application for residency as a skilled migrant had been approved but was awaiting further processing.
Then in October last year, Baig suddenly had to return to Chennai, India because his father’s health suddenly took a turn for the worse. During his visit, his father died and Baig stayed on assisting his family.
Compounding his grief, Baig discovered he couldn’t return to New Zealand because he left on October 27, a few weeks after the cut-off date for returning visa holders of October 9.
“Since I am overseas, my residency application is placed under the offshore category and will be processed after the onshore applications,” Baig said from India.
Due to immigration rules and regulations, it’s unlikely that Layeeq Baig will be able to return to New Zealand.
While Baig accepted rules were rules, he was “shocked” after finding he couldn’t extend his work visa – which expires on November 15 – until his residency application is processed.
“Come November 15, I cannot extend my work visa even if I am employed, and cannot expect my residency application processed with the current backlog, which spells out that this will be the end of the road for me to come back home”.
Baig said he now found himself in the most “desperate and helpless situation” which he wouldn’t “wish on anyone.”
Baig implored Immigration NZ to temporarily extend the work visa of stranded immigrants currently employed with their respective NZ organisations so that they can still work until the borders are opened for them, to come back home.
Layeeq Baig worked at Hawke’s Bay District Health board during Covid-19 and had to return to India to care for his dying father. Now he can’t get back into the country.
He also asked Immigration NZ to extend work visas of stranded migrants who had already applied for residency and were employed in New Zealand.
“I truly believe that I am part of the Hawke’s Bay community and part of ‘Team of Five million,’” he said. “I was a fool to have left New Zealand to meet my dying father, a fool to have thought to belong to the Hawke’s Bay community or a fool to have thought to belong to team ‘5 million’.
“Of all the years having lived and worked alongside some of the finest people in Hawke’s Bay, perseveres my faith in humanity, fairness and I ain’t no fool. I just hope the elected government hears this and does the right thing so that I can finally come back home.”
Immigration New Zealand’s general manager for border and visa operations, Nicola Hogg, said New Zealand’s border restrictions remained in place for all travellers except for New Zealand citizens and residents, those travelling from a quarantine-free location, or people who have been granted a border exception.
Border exceptions are only where people have a “critical purpose” for travel to New Zealand, including humanitarian reasons.
Hogg said Baig sought an exception to the border restrictions on humanitarian grounds, buthis application was declined as Immigration NZ didn’t believe his circumstances were exceptional enough to justify travel to New Zealand.
The Migrant Lives Matter protest in Auckland earlier this year.
The Government was “constantly reviewing border settings”, Hogg said, but it suspended the ability for most people offshore to apply for visas, meaning Baig’s residence application couldn’t be processed, and he was unable to submit a further work visa application.
Immigration advisor Katy Armstrong said the current immigration system was in a state of ‘rot’.
A “pretty broken” immigration system
Baig is just one of thousands of people who have made their lives in New Zealand but are now stuck in a Covid-induced bureaucratic time warp. Some, like Baig, are stuck outside. Others, like student Lamer Li, (see box) are stuck inside.
New Zealand’s immigration system is “pretty broken,” said Katy Armstrong, an immigration consultant at IntoNZ, an advisory service.
“The industry wants to be able to be proud of the system, a system that everyone feels happy with,” she said, saying people were “losing their marbles” because they couldn’t get back into or couldn’t stay in New Zealand.
“It’s cliché now that ‘the immigration system is ‘pretty broken’, but it is. There are historical reasons and there’s a love/hate relationship there,” she said.
With continual policy changes (about 60 this year, Armstrong said), it was hard for immigration advisors and lawyers to keep up, let alone the actual Immigration NZ staff. Armstrong has a dedicated staff member allocated every day to find out where her clients’ cases are in the “black hole” of the immigration system.
Armstrong said the government, along with complications of Covid-19 had allowed the system to “rot.”
Immigration lawyer Simon Laurent said Immigration New Zealand was under tension and had a high staff turn-over.
Immigration lawyer Simon Laurent agreed the system was under great pressure, with long delays in the processing of visa applications.
Laurent believed the pressure was due to a “high staff turnover” and “unfortunately, rather poor training – it seems to us”.
“At the same time immigration is pressing on with a changed programme which I think was disruptive in itself,” said Laurent, a former chairman of the New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment.
Laurent said there was a “toxic attitude” towards skills and partnership applications in particular.
“They’re falling over themselves to pick out what they can to destroy an application. I don’t know why, but it’s nasty, nasty stuff. It is like they’ve been given a directive to make it as unattractive as they can for people to apply.”
Armstrong said she was empathetic towards Immigration NZ staff, some of whom were working “really hard” behind the scenes. “I feel they, themselves, are in a washing machine. The minister has made a huge impact on their work without telling them”.
Hawke’s Bay immigration lawyer Mark Luscombe said he was observing an entire system that was suffering a “Covid-19 shock” and that its tail was a long one.
“Everyone is having to adapt quickly and the immigration system is finding it most difficult or appears so,” he said. “Some officers or call centre staff don’t appear to receive an adequate notification when changes are made or how to deal with them, and there is clearly information overload for them as well.”