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Posts with tag: INZ

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A Good News Bad News Story

Posted by Iain on Oct. 16, 2020, 2:51 p.m. in COVID-19

 

I am not sure if this is the good news or bad news story.

It looks like the government is finally starting to open up the border, inconsistently and somewhat illogically, step by step. Over the last two weeks they have announced that: 

1.       International students - 250 PhD students who were expected to study in New Zealand this year will now all be granted border exemptions to come and complete/start their study, depending on the courses they undertake and if they have support from their education institution in NZ

2.       Those who are offshore holding a work visa will, if they were previously in NZ before the lockdowns took effect, be able to apply to enter NZ with their family. No exemption to crossing the border required.

While that is good news, especially the second point, I am left scratching my head over why those people who hold jobs whilst currently overseas see their family getting priority over reuniting the hundreds of families stuck overseas when one partner is already in New Zealand working. Every week hundreds of border exemption applications, some filed by us, are being declined, for such split families.

While some of IMMagine’s applications are being approved for these exemptions, others have been declined and there is simply no consistency nor rhyme nor reason as to who gets the approval and who gets the decline. It appears to be a complete lottery.

Our team is spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to get straight answers out of INZ about those that have and those that haven’t been granted border exemptions to reunify these split families.

What is so frustrating is INZ has always tried to explain away their historically inconsistent decision making by hiding behind the ‘each case on its merits’ line. It’s garbage of course. That is nothing more than a cop out as two cases which are by and large the same should expect the same outcome. But so often that is anything but the case.

Never has this inconsistency been more apparent since we were told by a senior Manager a couple of weeks ago that where one partner was in NZ on a temporary visa and a partner and/or children were stuck on the other side of the border, they intended taking a more humanitarian approach, were dong a ‘wider piece of work’ (if I hear that phrase one more time I’ll scream) and were going to have a team meeting to ‘calibrate’ (seriously that’s this week’s INZ’s favourite and utterly meaningless term).  They were probably going to talk ‘around’ the issues' in the exemption ‘space’.

It transpires that meeting never took place.

Given concerns INZ managers have about the (intellectual) capacity of their own ‘counter level’ staff tasked with making these important decisions a directive was however given to them to escalate requests meeting the bullet point criteria below to a ‘senior experienced immigration officer’ (suggesting there are senior inexperienced officers? God help us) so someone who has been around a bit longer can cast their more ‘experienced’ eye over the 3000 characters which is all you get to state your case.

Six applications later which are all by and large the same, including: 

    One partner in NZ on a work Visa

    Other Partner stuck in the ‘home’ country

    One or more young children stuck in the home country with partner

    Child(ren) not seeing the NZ based parent for at least six months….

 …two were approved, four were declined.

If two were approved isn’t that the benchmark for the others to meet and if they do surely they too must be approved?

Apparently not.

These aren’t complex cases like residence visas. These are on the face of it simple cases with four criteria common to all applications and no differences beyond the names and dates of birth of the applicants. Hardly rocket science. Complex assessments do not need to be made. The only thing that differed in those six cases was the officer making the decision.

When we got copies of the files under the Official Information Act, bearing in mind it is a legal requirement for these decisions and the rationale that goes into them to be recorded, we learned….nothing. None the wiser why some were approved and some were declined.

Who assessed it determined what the outcome was. Pure and simple.

INZ cannot reasonably argue ‘each case on its merits’ was the reason for some being approved and some being declined when in substance they were all virtually identical.

The conclusion is these applications are nothing but a lottery.

This is the best example of the perils of dealing with INZ. They have for years hidden behind the ‘each case on its merits’ mantra rather than face the truth and do something about it. It’s nothing but a smokescreen for their inability to make consistent decisions.

What kind of system is it when who processes your visa is likely the strongest determining factor as to its outcome?

As we have pointed out before INZ has admitted its biggest ‘challenge’ (I’d say handicap) right now, more than ever, is they have so many officers that are still wet behind the ears and have no idea what they are doing.

This is simply not good enough. These decisions impact people lives. The emotional trauma being wrought upon families is, for those of us not trapped in this visa ‘no mans land’, difficult to comprehend. It seems some INZ Managers ‘get it’ but they are powerless it seems to get it through the skulls of the decision makers on the ‘counter’. The only alternative is they don’t care and I cannot believe that.

At some point someone is going to do something desperate born of the despair, frustration and hopelessness they are feeling given their family has been split for months with seemingly no end in sight - not for a few days, not even a few weeks, but for many it has now been over 8 months. Covid is often spoken of as a physical health emergency but to me it is increasingly becoming a mental health emergency and for no one more so than those migrants that the Government has encouraged to come here to be part of its residence programme, people who have brought us their skills, their energy and their commitment to building new lives in New Zealand, for whom ‘going home’ is not an option and who, to a child deserves so much more than this lottery.

We have two clients right now in New Zealand on work visas both of whom are thinking of throwing in the towel because they haven't seen partners and children now since Christmas. How do you make them understand that when another complete family is sitting overseas with one partner who gets a job in New Zealand now going to leapfrog them in the visa process? Are their needs subservient to the family that has never set foot in NZ?

If their employer gave them leave and they flew back to South Africa, we filed new work visas because they no longer need border exemptions, we must assume that they are going to be granted. It’s insane.

On the one hand it's great news that the border restrictions are starting to ease but it's so depressing that the Department seems incapable of prioritising those that can enter in a sensible and consistent way.

Until next week

 

 

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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Stay ahead of the pack

Posted by Iain on Sept. 25, 2020, 10:01 a.m. in COVID-19

It’s our bottom line advice to those looking to move to New Zealand or Australia and who believe they have the skills or capital that the Australian and New Zealand Government’s traditionally have sought out. If you leave it too long till borders are fully reopen not only might you be waiting a long time but you might also be caught up with hundreds of thousands of people looking for the ‘arrivals’ door at airports across New Zealand and Australia.

I cannot believe over the past six months how many people are contacting us, now desperate to leave wherever they are and join us on one of our islands. For islands, even big ones like Australia, are currently viewed as the safest places to be during a global pandemic and beyond. Not hard to control the border when you can simply shut down flying. If Trump is re-elected in the US, Boris continues to stuff up Brexit, Europe continues to groan under the weight of illegal migrants and legal refugees, South Africa continues its inexorable economic decline, Hong Kongers realise the BNO passport might not be the answer to their China fears and Singapore battles with its economic recovery, we will continue to be busy as people’s priorities continue to shift. Countries like New Zealand and Australia with lower population densities, solid health systems and sensible Governments are simply going to become more and more popular.

The fact that the Australian Government has already signalled that it is not cutting permanent residence quotas this year and next is telling. Over the past quarter century a significant percentage of Australia’s GDP growth has come from the two ‘M’s - ‘mining’ and ‘migration’. The PM has already signalled it is his (wise) intention to let business, rather than Government, dig, literally it seems, Australia out of its recession. China is back buying up lots of ore. Migrants consume - all need houses, cars, flat screen TVs and lounge suites - and therefore spend money when they get off the plane which explains why Australia doesn’t want to cut and continues to process residence cases.

I am pleasantly surprised by this given Australian unions have enormous and disproportionate political power and in times of rising unemployment in Australia you’d think they’d be arguing for the labour market drawbridge to be pulled up. The unions might well be but the wind is blowing nicely at the back of the pro-business federal Government that has increased in popularity given its handling of the virus. Any calls for restricting migration are for the most part being drowned out.

In New Zealand and as I wrote last week, no political party has signalled what it is going to do with immigration policy settings or quotas if it makes it to the treasury benches next month. My guess is the Labour Party will be governing with the Green Party. If that happens you can expect no real change to immigration policy settings - strangely immigration simply doesn’t seem to be part of either parties social or economic policy mix despite the current economic downturn. The National Party seems to have no ideas on immigration and the changing needs of our labour market which signals status quo if by some miracle they form the next Government.

If and when international travel starts again the smart migrant will be prepared. They will have their papers in order and their bags packed. The competition for available and limited places is only going to heat up when (if) there is a vaccine even if that prospect is still 12-24 months away.

We are working hard with over 600 families many now who have heeded that advice, see the logic and are getting prepared.

Those that have options in Australia can still file their permanent or provisional residence visas and we are filing many. Preparation, lodging and processing times for Australia is still running around 15-18 months to approval with the thick end of a further year on top to get to Australia to activate the residence so those getting things underway now will be well placed when the Aussies allow those with PRVs to enter Australia (right now they are extending deadlines for those with them to travel, as is NZ).

The current NZ Government recently said that skills shortages would ‘primarily’ need to be addressed from within New Zealand. I thought it took four years to train an apprentice, to complete a Bachelor of Education degree, five years to complete an Engineering degree (if there is an intermediate year), ditto Veterinarians and at least six years to complete a medical or dental degree. What do they propose we do in the meantime if we need to see a Doctor or Dentist or we actually decide to start building some of the billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects this lot keep harping on about? We don’t have the skills in the quantity we require.

The immediate challenge for the next Government in New Zealand is whether they are going to adapt to the new needs of the labour market - both skilled and less skilled - or they are going to stick with the current ‘get a skilled job and have enough ‘points’ and you are in’ strategy.  In many respects the NZ system makes more sense in a non Covid world than the Australian one as ours is labour market driven. In NZ the system is self correcting - if there aren’t enough people to fill annual quotas because they cannot get jobs, the pass mark can fall. If however demand increases, as I can see happening when the border fully reopens, the opposite should happen and the pass mark should go up. 

The big problem with this Covid world however is it is virtually impossible to manage that demand. This time last year the problem was too many jobs being created in NZ and not enough locals to fill them and therefore huge demand for migrants. Now, although unemployment is only 4% and that demand will have fallen as employers nervously try to map their future employment needs, skills shortages are not going away any time soon and to suggest, even in the heat of an election campaign that employers should fill jobs locally is wilfully ignorant of where the skills pressure points are in the labour market. If the Government is re-elected and continue that line, businesses will not expand - they won’t be able to. We rely too heavily on importing the skills we don’t produce enough of.

The reality is rising unemployment is not going to solve the bulk of our skills shortages. At IMMagine we are constantly being approached by recruiters asking if we can get border exemptions if a foreign candidate gets a job - particularly in the trades, Engineering, teaching and IT.

What our next government must look at in the short term is granting border exemptions to a far greater number of occupations than they do now. People are still being offered jobs here but for the most part rely on some low level state functionary to grant a border exemption to travel here to take up the job. And that process is dogged by inconsistent decision making.

As businesses in New Zealand learn to live with the virus (as clearly there is no alternative, eradicating is a pipe dream) employers are going to have to be able to bring in those skills we still don’t have, rising unemployment or not.

The smart migrant then will be ready and waiting. Prepared. Avoiding the ever growing pack queuing up behind them.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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What is INZ afraid of?

Posted by Iain on July 24, 2020, 1:27 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

The plot thickens.

Just what is going on with the processing of skilled migrant cases?

I received pushback this week from a senior Immigration Manager demonstrating one thing these people clearly do not appreciate is being questioned or held to account.

A problem I suggested in return might be easily solved if they publicised accurate and timely information on their website. They do not. Why?

We have learned under various applications made under the Official Information Act that:

1.      On July 2 INZ actually only had 427 skilled migrant resident (SMC) visa cases that met their priority processing criteria (high salary or occupational registration). I had been told there was 900 at the same time by a senior manager who should have known the number.

2.      INZ appears to have around 70 case officers assigned to process skilled migrant (points) cases and residence from work/talent visas.

3.      There is a priority queue within the priority queue (used for training up inexperienced officers and ‘efficiency improvements’ - translation -  meeting kpis and not looking completely useless)

4.      There is 14,000 SMC applications (covering around 28,000-30,000 people) sitting in the queue to be processed at the time of writing

5.      No Expressions of Interest are being selected - we were told during lockdown ‘no boots on the ground’ was the reason. The boots have been back on the ground now for around six weeks but still no pool draws. I am advised there’s around 3000 EOIs sitting in the pool currently. No invitations to apply for residence have been made for three months - so there’s little no new work adding to the queue.

6.      The Government has a target of around 25,000 resident visa approvals between Jan 2020 and June 2021.

7.      At IMMagine we have had four residence cases over the past week or so where we have been advised the case officer is happy with the evidence and arguments and moved to an internal INZ second person (quality and accuracy) check for sign off and the application has been sent back to the case officer because the more experienced officer has found fault with the first officer’s assessment. This is unprecedented in our experience. The officer training doesn’t seem to be going that well.

8.      The (now former) Minister of Immigration has as recently as ten days ago advised publicly that both priority and non priority queues are moving. The last non-priority case allocated for processing was receipted on 20 December 2018 (not 2019). Snails also technically move - doesn’t mean they will get anywhere any time soon…

What does all this mean to those waiting and wondering what is happening with their applications?

There is more people in the system than places available under the programme but only by the 10% variance allowed for. That hardly supports the notion that ‘demand’ for places is outstripping the ‘supply’ as the Minister and senior bureaucrats keep telling the world is the reason for the queue not getting shorter.

INZ Managers either do not know what is happening on their watch, how many cases representing priority and non-priroty are sitting in their queue or they are not telling the truth about it. I don’t think they are lying.

On the face of it when senior managers tasked with overseeing the ‘queue’ cannot advise us how many cases meet priority criteria and their Head Office Managers confirm that teachers and health care workers are being prioritised for training purposes, you know you’ve got a problem.

I don’t know how the number of officers is split between SMC processing and Residence from Work (I couldn’t get a straight answer) but given there’s probably 10 SMC cases for every one of the latter, that suggests there should be roughly 60 immigration officers processing the priority cases.

If there really was only 427 SMC priority cases sitting in the queue on 2 July as the Government advised under an OIA request, that means each officer would get roughly 7 cases. Seven! I also don’t know how long it would take an officer to process a case but let’s be generous and say, eight hours. That suggests the queue should be pretty much gone within a week.

So why, contrary to the Government’s statements that both queues are moving is there no evidence of it among the advising community which handle something like 40% - 50% of all cases in the system? The reports I am receiving are consistent - none of the corporate advising community is seeing any non priority cases being allocated for processing beyond a small number that have been ‘escalated’ through a strange process called EVE. I was told by a Visa Operations Manager these numbers are ‘very small’ and ‘rare’.

So what exactly are the case officers doing all day?

They can’t all be cutting their teeth on teacher applications.

Why can’t INZ (and the Government) just be honest with us all?

Are they hiding something because this maths and the experience of our industry just does not add up?

I am not suggesting there’s wholesale lying going on but the only other explanation is the government and the senior management of INZ do not know what is really happening in the branches and on the ground. I am not sure which is worse.

Senior managers can whine at those of us pushing for answers about what the numbers really are or they could get their act together and publish the real numbers. Don’t they want to know how they are performing?

I am calling on INZ to publish (accurately and I’d suggest weekly) in one place on their website:

1.       The number of SMC cases sitting in their yet to be allocated queue

2.       The number of residence from work cases sitting in the queue

3.       The number of priority cases within that number (1) above

4.       The number of priority SMC cases approved and declined weekly

5.       The number of non-priority SMC cases approved and declined weekly

How hard could that be? If we had those five simple metrics we could all stop firing off OIA requests tying up time of low level functionaries in Wellington who I know are often being asked the same question multiple times.

Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s interest, not least the Government's, to provide this snapshot each week when it is the government and INZ trying to convince the world, against all the evidence that the problem is demand for visas exceeding the supply of them?

What are they all so afraid of?

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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A Stunning Admission From INZ

Posted by Iain on July 10, 2020, 1:08 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

Last week I wrote that INZ had all but admitted that in addition to their published criteria where some skilled migrants were being given priority over others while the significant majority were being ignored and continue to gather dust, it turned out that there is within that priority queue, a separate unpublished second priority queue. Criteria apply which are not publicly disclosed to that second group who get the on the faster, fast track. It turns out that Teachers and "Health workers" are being given priority priority. Very few applications that don't meet priority criteria (whether published or not) have been allocated for processing since 19 December 2018.

This week under an official information request, the General Manager of Visa Operations has confirmed that is the case. The General Manager has confirmed:

‘Immigration New Zealand may allocate these applications as a group to improve efficiency or for training purposes’

That is outrageous. INZ’s most senior Manager of visa processing has just admitted that the chances of your resident visa being allocated and processed then is directly proportional to the intellectual capabilities of the INZ workforce to understand what they are dealing with.

Teachers, as I said last week, are on the face of it, less intellectually challenging than many other types of skilled migrant cases. As a consequence, they are being used to train up new and inexperienced staff and to keep the approval numbers where INZ wants them. That is what they mean by ‘efficiency’. They have 'kpis' to meet and they are admitting they couldn’t meet them without picking the less complex cases out of the pile.

My blood boils that no one in Government or even the Parliament seems to care. There is a fundamental unfairness to this. All applicants are charged the same fee. Everyone in that queue has, presumably, a prima facie claim to residence or they would not have been invited to file that resident visa in the first place. Cases sitting unallocated for almost two years gather dust while INZ uses the less complex cases to train their staff?

That is an outrage.

Applicants who have for example fixed term 12 month contracts who would be granted residence if INZ processed cases in chronological order, are now certainly going to be declined their residence. Quite simply because INZ does not have the depth of knowledge it requires to process such cases (which aren’t actually any more complex than a Teacher’s case for the most part).

And as one wit in my office has pointed out, even the less complex cases are proving challenging for the inexperienced officers. She said:

‘It’s clear the officers processing Teacher applications for training purposes need a heck of a lot of training – I had one ask me for the divorce document between a client and her children’s father to prove custody despite the fact the biological father died years ago and we presented his Death Certificate. It’s more like we’re the ones training them…’ 

Truth is nobody seems to care in Government and getting any traction on this with even opposition politicians is impossible.

In other developments this week, a couple of interesting statements from the Minister of Immigration warrants some scrutiny.

Using the wide range in powers recently granted to itself under the Immigration Act, the government has announced that anybody who holds a Work Visa (of any type presumably) that expires before "the end of the year" (presumably 31 December) will automatically have that extended for six months. No application form nor fee is required.

The mainstream media focused on the Minister’s statement that this would provide "certainty to employers and migrants”. That is to say, aren't we kind?

What has been less widely reported is the Minister also clarified why the grant was for only six months. He made it clear that the six months was designed in effect for employers to start seriously looking for New Zealanders to replace those migrant workers. 

Of course, he really needs to say that because unemployment here is rising, although not as quickly nor as precipitously as had been projected as recently as three months ago when the country went into lockdown.

The government has saved itself a whole heap of processing trouble by avoiding processing over 16,000 individual work visas that were due to expire between now and the end of the year. It should be cold comfort however to those holding the work visas many of whom will likely be denied any extensions beyond that.

Bizarrely however, this blanket extension does not apply to partners or dependent children of those Work Visa holders. INZ has confirmed that they must still apply for their own “extensions”, pay the fee, fill out the forms and provide all the updated evidence normally required.

So much for improved efficiency.

The government is making it clear that the bar to get a labour market tested Work Visa is getting higher. I’m not suggesting forcing partners and children to apply for visas as part of a strategy to make New Zealand less attractive, I’m pretty sure it’s just something else no one in the halls of power bothered to think very hard about.

Also this week while watching a current affairs piece on why the government is showing such seeming disregard for families who normally live in New Zealand on temporary work and other similar visas, but who are stuck overseas by the border closure with jobs to come back to, and who for the most part are not being allowed in, he said the government was "working on" a solution. This sharper than most journalist kept pressing him for when this "piece of work" might be completed. Ever evasive, he said "Soon". To which the journalist responded along the lines of ‘I keep being told that things are being worked on and announcements will be made soon, but tens of thousands of people are sitting in limbo trying to make plans. So when is soon?’

To which he finally conceded there are no plans to allow most people stuck overseas or split by the border closure to re-enter, or enter New Zealand for the first time, "for months”. Months does not mean weeks. It certainly means after the election in September which is obviously the first goal of the current Government.

I suspect six months or more because the government simply doesn't have the isolation/quarantine capacity to scale up the number of facilities quickly enough.

Supporting that viewpoint is the incredible announcement this week that as majority owner of Air New Zealand, the government has now effectively ordered the airline to limit the number of New Zealanders travelling back to the country over the next three weeks. Singapore Airlines and Emirates quickly fell into line. Between those three airlines something like 95% of available capacity is held.

In fairness, it does seem that there are significant numbers of New Zealand citizens or permanent residents who are heading home. As the world continues to implode and job losses mount around the world it makes sense that they may as well come home to their family and social support networks (and an unemployment benefit not available to many of them if they stay overseas) and possibly jobs given our economy is recovering reasonably well from the initial lockdown.

The government has now requisitioned 26 hotels (there were four shortly after we went into lockdown) and they are looking to expand. Politically, and legally, they cannot prevent New Zealanders coming home. As the Prime Minister was very quick to say this week, she isn’t saying they can't come home at all, they are just staggering their arrival. (I think that is called dancing on the head of a pin). Apparently, they are "working on” a framework whereby if a New Zealander might need to come back for some urgent reason they might be allowed to do so.

There are already howls of protest. Australia announced today they are also doing something similar for the same reasons - insufficient facilities to isloate and quarantine.

There are lots of things about this pandemic that the government cannot control and no one can blame them for. With a Kiwi diaspora in the hundreds of thousands spread to all corners of the globe, I am sure many are going to come home. They must come first because they have the right to be here and unfortunately, at least in the short term, it does mean that many migrants are going to end up in a very long queue by the looks of things.

At the same time however IMMagine has had our first ‘humanitarian’ border exemption granted. We’ve already had one ‘critical worker’ approved. While we are very pleased for the client, we are left scratching our heads what made their circumstance any different from many others that we have with families that have been split by the border closure.  In this case we have a mother and two children in New Zealand on work and student visas respectively. The partner is in South Africa holding an open work visa. The first time we applied for him to get an exemption to fly to New Zealand and join the family, the application was declined without explanation. When pressed, INZ agreed to re-examine the decision and then out of the blue earlier this week they approved it.

Despite our head scratching about what made this situation meet the high bar for ‘compelling humanitarian circumstances’ when it describes the same situation that so many people are in, we are very pleased to have got this result for the client.

It seems that part of the thinking might be to try and reunite split families before they try and let whole families caught offshore when the border closed re-enter. But who knows?

I just wish those that are here, in that (mis)managed skilled migrant resident visa queue, begging for some certainty were treated with the fairness and respect they deserve. 

To admit many are going to miss out on residence simply because INZ lacks the intellectual capability to process anything other than the simplest of cases is a scandal of the highest order. It proves everything I have ever believed about this out of control Government department.

They need a serious audit by the Auditor General.

Until next week.

 

Iain MacLeod

 

Southern Man

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Tags: migrants | INZ | Immigration

Skilled Migrant Backlog Explained

Posted by Iain on July 3, 2020, 12:29 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

What is really going on with the skilled migrant category and the ever growing backlog of cases? 

Never has a queue been the subject of so much speculation and intrigue. Calls are growing louder for the government to front. To tell the truth. Hardly a day goes by without one media (mainstream or social) or another speculating on the cause of the skilled/business stream processing delays and backlogs.

I place little stock in the opinions of those on Facebook, migrant chat groups, online forums, ‘ethnic’ radio stations and even less so the MSM to actually get the answers people are looking for.

I’ve been trying for weeks to try and get a straight answer on what is really happening. I think I’ve worked it out and it is, for the most part nothing to do with ‘rising demand’.

On the one hand we have the ‘Ghost’ Minister of Immigration, using the coronavirus and the lockdown as the reason for processing delays despite the backlog and processing times being the same for the 12 months pre - lockdown as we are being told they will be post. He is either lying or just doesn’t know what is going on.

I have been engaging with a senior official on this question, who I am not going to name, nor reveal the designation of, but this person should know exactly what is going on on the ground and more importantly, is what in the media world would be called a highly reliable source.

This week I was advised that there are 14,000 skilled and business stream applications sitting in the unallocated queue, awaiting subsequent processing. This includes skilled migrant category applications (points) and those applying under the Residence from work (talent) sub streams. It covers a handful (low hundreds) of business and entrepreneur resident visa cases.

Each resident visa application historically represented 2.1 people so it means, in rough figures, there’s about 30,000 people sitting in the queue waiting for their residence to be allocated and processed, that this Government invited and encouraged to file their application.

I was advised, that when the previous residence programme ended in December 2019, INZ put it to the Minister of Immigration that unless they were advised otherwise, they’d assume the targets/quotas would be rolled over for the next 18 months. The Minister apparently responded with ‘Noted’.

That means INZ has given itself a target of 30,000 skilled and business resident visas for the period January 2020 to June 2021 to approve and issue. That’s roughly 14,000 applications over the period - the same number as the people currently sitting in the queue.

The current two year backlog only started to grow when INZ stopped allocating cases in December 2018. Prior to that it sat around 6-8 months.

Of the 14,000 cases on hand this month, only 600 are currently identified as ‘priority’, defined as those that have the principle applicant earning $51 per hour or who work in an occupation in NZ requiring statutory registration.  Even these are now taking months to be allocated.

Virtually no ‘non-priority’ cases have been allocated for processing since December 2018 despite MSM reports. Occasionally some are but we have been advised by the Residence Visa Operations Manager that such exceptions are ‘rare’ and the numbers ‘small’. One assumes statistically insignificant in the scheme of things.

As recently as this week the Minister of Immigration publicly stated that the ‘non-priority’ queue is also moving. He is, once again, either uninformed or embellishing the facts.

The bit I cannot work out and even my source cannot (or will not) clearly explain is why, when the numbers of priority applications sitting in the queue is only 600 (representing around 1,400 people) we are constantly told (officially and very publicly) that no ‘non-priority’ cases are being allocated, processed or approved by INZ.

At the same time my source tells me they are ‘on track’ to issue and approve ‘up to 30,000 resident visas’ by June 2021, but the truth is that they have only been processing the priority cases since December 2018.

The math doesn’t add up.

That’s only 40 odd cases a month being allocated. If that’s all they allocate and they approved every single one they won’t hit 30,000 resident visa approvals, they’ll hit 1400 over 18 months. That’s hardly being ‘on target’.

Even more curiously, these priority cases are spread across something like 50 case officers. They should be able to get through 600 cases in a month! And will have to to get anywhere near the target they claim to be on target to deliver.

I suspect a significant part of the answer is it is not that demand is exceeding the supply of places, as the Government and INZ has been telling us for the thick end of two years, it is, incredibly, that the department lacks the intellectual capability to process most of the cases on hand. They don’t have the knowledge and experience.

I believe that is the real reason for the increasing backlogs. A significant percentage of the case officers are not ‘fit for purpose’. I have all but been told that by my source.

We were intrigued and alarmed to learn a few months ago that within the so-called priority queue there was also an unofficial sub-priority queue covering teachers and ‘health workers’.  We couldn’t understand why there needed to be a priority queue within a priority queue. After all, all those people were on long term work visas and were not in any meaningful way in need of urgent processing. Certainly no more urgent, than say, applicants sitting on fixed term 12 month contracts (fine for a resident visa and points) and whose resident visas are not going to be allocated, processed and approved before they lose their jobs and with it, residence.

When pressed on what the justification was for a queue within a queue, my source has suggested these are, in large part, being used for training purposes because, I imagine on any visa scale of complexity a Teacher, working in NZ, is a less complex type of application for someone fresh faced, inexperienced or out of their intellectual depth to process. That's an incredible suggestion.

I think, although the source will not absolutely confirm (because this reflects pretty poorly on management as well), the real reason this backlog is growing is primarily because the managers do not believe the skills exist across the processing teams to accurately and efficiently process the cases. So the ‘easier’ ones are taking precedence. Not because they are more ‘valuable to NZ’ as INZ has told us more than once, but because they are usually less complex.

It seems then your chances of residence is now based primarily how complicated your case might look to INZ.

Adding to all of this is the fact that the previous Government cut the numbers of visas they were prepared to issue (paradoxically as the economy boomed and skills shortages worsened) and the current Government cut them even further for political reasons (to the current unofficial 30,000 people every 18 months).

The pass mark to be selected from the skilled migrant pool did not increase when both governments cut numbers as it needed to in order to not invite more people to apply for residence than there were places available. That of course, in a booming economy would have created a whole different set of issues but that is for another day (and Government policy review on the folly of a points based system in a labour market driven policy). The point is, two years ago the pass mark should have increased, or the processing backlog would inevitably grow as there is a maximum number of resident visas that can be approved.

‘Demand’ is being used now as an excuse by officials and Ministers but it is a red herring. It’s a smokescreen that no one has been able to see through. Until now.

Even with the lower target put in place by the current government the ‘backlog’ was only 6-8 months to allocate cases, so the numbers flowing into the system has not increased to the point where cases should be taking four times longer even to be allocated.

The department’s own numbers prove that is a lie.

There is now 3000 EOIs sitting in the pool. My source has confirmed that number and acknowledged that the processing ‘can’ is simply being kicked down the road. INZ doesn’t want these EOIs selected because they don’t want more cases flowing into the system because with every one that is, it makes INZ look even more hapless. And exposes the Minister and Government to more accusations they are missing in action. They aren’t chasing (another) crisis.

With INZ back at work after having to sit at home twiddling their thumbs while the rest of us were left working during lockdown, pool draws have not resumed. We were told they were stopped during lockdown because INZ wasn’t able to work.

Why hasn’t the selection resumed given INZ has been back at work for a month?

My guess is, with the shine coming off this government over border and quarantine botch ups and 8 weeks out from the election, when their (commanding) lead in the polls is falling, they will not authorise the resumption of pool draws till the election is out of the way. They are desperate to make immigration a non-issue during the election. And INZ management is not about to make themselves look any more useless than they look now by backlogs getting even worse.

INZ is never going to admit that the truth behind the backlog is a failure to have enough immigration officers with the experience, knowledge and intellectual capability to do their job. Managers clearly lack the confidence to give more than a case or two a week to these officers because they apparently believe they will make poor decisions and need a whole lot of babysitting and training.

The tens of thousands of migrants (being real people, not economic ‘widgets’) sitting in that queue, living day to day, hoping they won’t lose their job, who gave up everything to be part of this Government’s (unofficially official) programme, who were selected and invited to apply for residence by demonstrating a prima facie claim they met the criteria for approval, who have been charged $3000 plus per family by Government for the chance, are being treated with contempt.

Victims of gross political and bureaucratic mismanagement.

This is a growing scandal that the government hopes desperately to keep the lid on till after the election.

They will if we all let it.

Until next week.

Iain MacLeod

 

Southern Man

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Once a Refugee

Posted by Paul on June 19, 2020, 10:48 a.m. in Refugees

Migrating is tough and anyone brave enough to do it will need to be prepared to face a myriad of obstacles; from leaving behind the familiar, hunting down a new job in a new environment, negotiating the legal complexities and then of course settling in to a new country. Add to all of this INZ’s fragmented and confusing visa processes, the very lengthy current Residence processing queues, and what was, as recently as 18 months ago, challenging, has now become something akin to Dante’s Inferno.

While, as advisers battling the system, we understand the pressures (mental and financial) of what it takes to get through this successfully as we live it alongside our clients on a daily basis, attempting to bring some sanity and balance; that doesn’t stop people from losing their nerve and on occasion their cool. Never more so than now with two years being quoted to allocate a resident visa application and the coronavirus turning everything on its head.

Every Residence Visa approval is therefore as much a cause for celebration for us as it is for our clients, even after the thousands we have achieved. Every now and then however, we get an application and a family through the process where the win is just that little bit more special and this week we had one such success.

It is a story worth reading (especially if you are feeling frustrated at sitting in INZ’s so called ‘managed queue’ right now).

Imagine trying to deal with all of the potential challenges, whilst also being handicapped from the start because of where you come from and the fact that once, more than a decade ago, you were brave enough to escape one country as a refugee, try and build a life in a hostile second country and then try and move to a third. You apply for the same Visas in New Zealand and pay the same fees as everyone else but you are singled out and treated differently – only because of your country of origin.

This week’s approval was for a client who found himself in that situation, besieged on all sides by a process that is hard for most but was uniquely challenging for him. Challenging for reasons that should have never been important if the immigration system is as ‘colour blind’ as it claims to be. Then try and imagine yourself overcoming all of those odds with a smile on your face.

We met Nico (full name withheld) over five years ago and it has taken blood (literally), sweat and a few tears over that time, for us to guide him to the summit of this visa ‘Everest’. His story would fill more than a couple of pages, but even the abbreviated version is worth telling.

Nico was born in the Congo and fled with his family to the relative ‘safety’ of South Africa in the late 90’s. Degree qualified in math and statistics he quickly found and took up a position teaching secondary school students his own joy of numbers. He and his family held temporary Visas for several years whilst awaiting the outcome of a refugee claim through the Department of Home Affairs. His claim left him and his family living in legal limbo for the eight years to process, living daily with the uncertainty all refugees feel. His claim was finally accepted and approved in 2008. Along with his wife and children Permanent Residence was granted. He later graduated in South Africa with a formal teaching qualification and built up a very respectable 20 year career in education.

Realising, as many have, that South Africa was slowly falling off a cliff, coupled with being the victim of a bungled (thankfully) aggravated robbery, he decided to once again take his family elsewhere. He secured registration in New Zealand as a Teacher and thought, as many do, that he would do well here, given the demand for his skills and New Zealand’s welcoming approach to migrants from all walks of life and backgrounds.

What he couldn’t have anticipated is the system isn’t quite as colour blind and without prejudice as it claims to be.

What he couldn’t have known was he fell on the wrong side of a very definitive, if unofficial, line with INZ. They would suggest that it’s always a matter of “each case on its merits” and a process of “complex individual assessments”, when the truth is somewhat darker. We call it profiling (you can decide which sort). From 2015 onwards, Nico would be questioned, tested, pushed, pulled and prodded through the system to extremes we seldom see, in most part because he is Congolese and being deemed to be a higher risk (of what you might ask?) but primarily because he was once (now no longer) a refugee.  Nico was immediately tarred with an invisible brush.

His ordeal began when he made the decision to visit New Zealand to explore the country and establish whether or not it was the right move. Like many others before, he applied, on his own for a Visitor Visa to do just that. Thousands are issued every day for this purpose. INZ declined that Visa (promptly) because they doubted he would leave at the end of his stay; never mind the fact he was a permanent resident of South Africa, had a wife and four children to return to, along with a permanent and secure job and a solid history of complying with any Visa he had previously held. Not a great start but not an uncommon problem with this sort of Visa for this ‘sort’ of applicant.

Undeterred, he then secured an offer of employment in New Zealand and again applied on his own for a Work Visa. Should have been straight forward. Once more he was declined (again promptly) and this time INZ tried to use a character concern, based on the fact he never told INZ he was registered as a Teacher in NZ when he applied for his earlier Visitor Visa (the one that INZ declined anyway). INZ also suggested he appeared not to be a bona-fide applicant (always their last line of defence) because he might want to stay longer which, had he secured a further job and Visa, would have seen him eligible to do and how New Zealand has ultimately been topped up with skilled people we cannot produce enough of locally. By INZ’s definition, being skilled, having a job and filling a shortage in NZ was a reason not to give someone a Visa. Bizarre logic for anyone, even those not familiar with how inconsistent this process can be.

Trying to unravel why Nico was declined a Visitor Visa and then a Work Visa, despite being a genuine, skilled and very experienced potential migrant, there were a number of robust exchanges between ourselves and senior managers within INZ. We were in little doubt why the roadblocks were going up and whilst INZ argued as they always do that the process involves each case being assessed on its own merits, one response from one manager very much gave the game away….

“This applicant, from Congo, applied for an Essential Skills Work Visa on the basis of an offer of employment at XX College (name removed), to work as an assistant teacher…

…and he had attempted to remain long term in South Africa, the concern being that he may not depart New Zealand upon the expiry of his employment in New Zealand”

Why the reference to his being from the Congo when he had been living as a permanent resident in south Africa since 2008? If, as INZ says, cases are decided on their merits, why did this senior officer decide it was important or even relevant to mention that this applicant was from the Congo in the very first line? As a permanent resident of South Africa, of course he had “attempted to remain long term” there – that is the point of holding that status in South Africa just as it is in New Zealand. Would it have made a difference if he was born in South Africa, or perhaps came from the UK or Canada…of course it would and it is why his nationality and his history as a refugee was the first thought on INZ’s mind, they reached a conclusion and then worked backwards to find reasons to justify their pre-ordained conclusions. Hardly, ‘each case on its merits’ let alone following their own colour blind rules.

Several months after his own attempts to wrestle with INZ having has the first work visa declined, he secured another teaching position. At that point he called in the artillery (IMMagine) and we were formally retained to help him secure the Work Visa and it was approved. However, INZ were not going to make it any easier for his family to join him and set out to do all they could to prevent it.

This time INZ argued that his three daughters, all of whom secured Permanent Residence in South Africa through him and had an abundance of documentation to prove they were in fact his offspring, may not be his. You might want to read that again – they suggested his children, complete with birth certificates with their parent’s names on them and an abundance of other evidence, might not be his children.

We suggested to INZ if a DNA test might satisfy them. That’s right, a DNA test. Nico and his family literally had to give INZ DNA proof that they were all of the same lineage. Asking for a DNA test is incredibly rare and in my 16 years, I have seen it only on one other occasion and for very different reasons to this. Nico didn’t flinch and simply did what he had to do to prove what we all knew to be true. That took three month to deliver and satisfy the bureaucrats of.

After almost two years of back and forth, separated from his family for that whole time, Nico and his family were finally able to be in New Zealand together.

There was still the residence hurdle to overcome.  Nico unfortunately struggled to secure just half a point needed to pass his English test (he obtained his teacher registration because his South African Bachelor of Education was taught in English but this doesn’t work for the visa).

We went to the Minister to try and get some common sense. After all, Nico was here, teaching, excelling, by all accounts a wonderful teacher and community man, had been granted Teacher registration which has a significantly higher standard of English than applies to a resident visas, so surely now was the time to cut the guy a bit of slack.

With all that INZ had thrown him, we thought the Minister might let that pass, considering Nico had over 12 months of experience in New Zealand already. Far lesser requests have been made and approved.  Nico’s request was however passed back down the line from the Minister to the same people who had called him a liar, declined him twice and then asked him to draw blood more than once. Request denied.

While lesser, or perhaps less desperate men might have walked away, with that dogged determination still very much in place and after having attempted the English test more times that anyone would have the stomach for, Nico secured that elusive half a point and the Residence Visa was able to be filed.

Five years after commencing the process and over 18 months after arriving in New Zealand and despite the system throwing everything they could at him, Nico along with his wife and four children were this week, granted the Residence Visas they so very much deserve.

Despite INZ declining Nico and his family twice based on absurd reasoning and even if we ignore the fact they accused him of being a liar who might be smuggling in children to NZ that don’t belong to him, Nico managed to survive through all of it with a sense of poise and dignity that very few could muster.

When I called Nico this week, to deliver the good news, he thanked me, he thanked IMMagine, he thanked New Zealand and he surprisingly thanked the system. For the latter, he had every right not to and to be angry and bitter at their naked racism and stupidity. He had every right throughout his five year journey to do what many would and throw every toy out of his cot – likely in our direction – he didn’t and for that, this outcome is also special.

To anyone who says we let people walk into this country, to people who think we shouldn’t allow in more ‘refugees’ and to anyone who wants to believe that migrants ‘choose not to ‘assimilate’, this story is for you.  It is also in a way for those clients and others, stuck in INZ’s queue, waiting for a decision on their outcome who don’t have the ‘handicap’ of Nico’s background and skin colour.

I believe New Zealand should say thank you to Nico and his family, because it is New Zealand that is benefiting from his energy, attitude, skills and experience as a Teacher (we are still thousands short believe it or not). We will benefit from his daughters, all currently studying towards degrees, thankful for this opportunity and who will go on to become highly skilled New Zealanders. And thank you to Nico’s youngest son who no doubt will do the same. A big thanks also needs to go to his wife, for standing by her man, her family and who was put through so much to bring us her skills – she is also a qualified Teacher.

INZ should, but won’t, take a long hard look in the mirror at how it treats those skilled migrants the Government still spends millions of dollars marketing this country to, because last time we looked it didn’t say it in the encouragement and words of ‘welcoming skilled migrants’ that black Africans need not apply. Shame on every single one of them from the Minister down.

Thank you Nico for sticking it out, not only in the face of the ordinary challenges like queues and delays that migrants must endure but for also dealing with those unadvertised and unsignalled obstacles that INZ decided applied only to you. To do so without so much as a single word of complaint and an enduring smile on your face is a testament to how lucky we are that you chose to make New Zealand home.

IMMagine salutes you.

Tags: New Zealand | INZ

Is the border about to reopen

Posted by Iain on May 29, 2020, 2:47 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

This week the Director General of Health, clearly our de facto Health Minister during the Covid-19 crisis given the ongoing absence of the elected one, made an interesting and telling comment - virus testing was moving from the community to the border. The obvious conclusion is that with there being only one person left in the country with the Coronavirus this week and no new cases being reported and community transmission halted, this was the clearest signal yet the government is looking to start to gradually re-open the border.

So who might stand to benefit and who might be allowed in?

Seems to start with being a movie mogul with the Minister responsible for ‘exceptions’ to the border closure announcing this week that the crew required to complete the ongoing filming and production of the Avatar sequel are to be allowed in. Apparently they have special skills we do not have here which is doubtful given the size of the local movie, television and commercial production industry.

What of the thousands of other highly skilled workers we still need on the farms, in IT, education, biotech, trades and Engineering - many of whom still have jobs but are either trapped offshore or are in New Zealand with work visas in process?

I can imagine that the next cabs off the rank will be the hundreds of current work visa holders who still have jobs here, had been working here, but who were overseas when the border shut down. Strangely they are still not allowed to re-enter the country despite many of those quarantine hotel rooms now sitting empty.

At the same time those with valid work visas (but who hadn't taken up the job in NZ when the border was closed) should in my view be allowed to enter along with their families. We represent many - IT Security Specialists and Vets to name two - who work in areas of absolute skills shortage who are marooned offshore, leaving local employers tearing their hair out. All our clients have been invited to apply for residence but are unable to take up their respective jobs. All are resigned to 14 days quarantine if that’s what it takes.

Joining them should be partners and children of international student and work visa holders where the student or work visa holder is already in the country. This group was listed among those who could apply for exceptions to be allowed to enter the country when it went into lockdown in March but who were quietly dropped off that list within a fortnight. This has meant hundreds, if not a few thousand, people have had their families torn apart with no end in sight. If the primary applicant is in New Zealand and is still on a valid work or student visa, and in the case of those on work visas, has a job, it is only right (can I say ‘kind’ one more time?) their family should be able to join them.

Then, everyone else.

Tourists I imagine need not apply till there is a vaccine or they are prepared for two weeks of staring at the four walls of a hotel room in quarantine (potentially at their expense) if they are tested on arrival and found to be positive.

I am not saying this will be the order or when it might happen. I do not know and apart from that one telling statement from the Director General, the government has, typically, been silent. I expect however that they will make some announcements over the next couple of weeks.

In a demonstration of how low on the Government’s priority ‘to do’ list immigration really features, what did send a chill down my spine was when, finally, at a press conference this week the PM was asked how a person who seeks to enter the country while the borders are closed should be expected to demonstrate ‘compelling and exceptional humanitarian circumstances’ to get a precious exemption when the form they have to fill provides them 60 words to do so (that’s less than the length of the sentence you just read), she scrunched up her face in quizzical fashion, as she tends to do, and said she wasn’t aware of that but would ask her (ghost) Minister of Immigration why this is the case. Nice deflection Jacinda, but here we are, several days later, and the form hasn’t changed. Did all those Avatar movie makers have to explain in 60 words or less why they should be allowed in?

On the home front we are starting to see the immigration department get back to work and back to their bizarre assessment ways with some new tricks.

I have written previously, that the department was about to ‘go hard and then go even harder’ on new Essential Skill Work Visa applications. They haven’t let me down and have come up, it seems, with some inventive but typically illogical and stupid methods to ensure as few work visas are issued as possible.

For any typical work visa applicant it has always been a requirement that the employer demonstrate a genuine effort to recruit locals for a position and to prove why they cannot train someone for the role. Fair enough - with local unemployment looking to spike to 8-9% by the end of June before starting to fall depending on whose thumb suck predictions you run with — it should be New Zealanders first. Every Government, everywhere, thinks likes that.

Trouble is when you ask a bureaucrat to start applying an otherwise reasonable thought, requiring some exercise in discretion, they tend to go to extremes while their ‘managers’ sit back and watch them do it (Managers inside this department can’t tell anyone what to do you see. Fact).

Already this week we have seen two clients, both highly skilled and specialised receive ‘letters of concern’ (identical to one another it should be noted confirming already this isn’t an ‘each case on its merits’ process) in which the case officer wants to know what current advertising the employer is doing to fill the role.

Say what?

What employer follows a recruitment process of advertising, evaluating CVs, creating a short list of potentially suitable candidates, conducts interviews, selects one, formally offers a position and then continues to advertise the role? In which part of the universe does that ever happen?

Unfortunately some well-intentioned fool in Wellington sent out the following message in a recent guidance and as usual this has been taken, twisted, misinterpreted and then, like a virus, infected all case officers:

'Immigration officers should not specifically request that employers re-advertise a role (as this is not a request for information) though employers may choose to do this if an immigration officer is not satisfied that there are no New Zealanders available and that immigration instructions are not met'

Breaking that down it is clear that immigration officers are under no obligation to request, nor even suggest, that employers re-advertise a role... yet that is precisely what, in the only two cases we have received letters from INZ over work visas this week, they demand.

'Please send the following:

Updated advertising information to show there are no New Zealand citizens or residents available to do the work on offer and genuine attempts to attract and recruit suitable New Zealand citizens or residence class visa holders for the role have been made'

Identical letters. Neither officer bothered to explain why they are not satisfied that there are no New Zealanders available, just cut and pasted an identical templated letter that burbled on about the Coronavirus, local labour market softening, times are a changin' and then, as they tend to do, taken a one size fits all approach and demanded evidence of updated advertising.

Which begs any number of questions.

Why were they not satisifed with the genuine efforts made by the employer?

What evidence does the department have of current vacancies in that particular field? Are they up, down, sideways? What is the short, medium and long term labour market outlook for, say Veternarians in NZ or IT Security Specialists?

Given the employer had done all that immigration rules demand, in an often lengthy and comprehensive process leading to their decision to offer a migrant a job, if they do now run another advertisement online for a week or two, start the process over again but reach the same conclusion and (re)offer the job to the same non-resident, is the case officer going to accuse them of not making 'genuine efforts' the second time around and still not being 'satisifed' no New Zealander should be available?

I believe they are stupid enough to do it because they have clearly got it in their heads that they should be demanding new advertising to make sure a Kiwi steps forward. All in an effort to find a way, any way, to decline the work visa.

Honestly, I despair. If the advertising programme run by the employer finished, say, less than two-three weeks before the work visa application was assessed by an officer, why would INZ demand new advertising? Is the labour market going to shift seismically in 14-21 days?

If the advertising was completed before the country went into lockdown and jobs starting being shed locally I can better understand the employer being encouraged to have another crack at advertising OR INZ doing its own labour market research.

And if they are going to demand real time labour market testing, isn't the onus on the immigration department to receipt an application and assess it the day the application was filed? These applications can sit around for weeks in the best of times before case officers bother to look at them. They are seriously expecting employers to wait weeks until it is assessed, before getting this 'please advertise again' letter, then advertise again (which to do properly will take weeks), only to have some immmigration officer tell them that 'at the time of assessment' (not lodgement) 'I am not satisfied there may not be a local available'? Probably... because that's how they think. And it clearly what they have been told to do.

Is this a covert way of shutting down the skilled migrant residence programme without publicly announcing it?

I seriously doubt it - work visa rules exist in isolation from skilled migrant residence rules and I haven't ever come across a senior manager inside INZ who sees any connection (despite both visa outcomes relying on the same job offer, one which is labour market tested and one which is not), it seems to me to simply be another glaring example of a bureaucracy that makes decisions in a reality vacuum with no real understanding of how the real world operates and real businesses operate within that world.

The border might be about to open up a smidge but I fear the visa madness is only just the beginning.

Post script: Last week I wondered if those sitting in the Skilled Migrant Residence Visa processing queue, whose visa INZ hadn't got round to processing or approving when the lockdown started, might be treated with kindness and as part of the 'team of 5 million' if they lost their job, the conditions of that job (such as hours or effective hourly rate) changed such that they are no longer entitled to 50 or 80 points.  INZ had this to say today:

'The conditions in a work-to-residence work visa or a job offer associated with a skilled migrant category visa application must be met for the applicant to be eligible for residence.

'Must be met'. Meaning if you have lost your job, do lose your job, have your hours and or have your pay cut then you are screwed. 

My question of last week appears to have been answered and so much for all being in this together. Migrants might well be out in the cold and are not considered part of the 'team of 5 million' and are deemed expendable.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

 

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INZ is back at work - sort of

Posted by Iain on May 14, 2020, 4:48 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

The Immigration Department has confirmed that from Thursday 14 May, in respect of their onshore offices (only) they were back to work with around 70% of the staff in the office. Offshore offices remain closed.

The reason given for 30% of its onshore staff not being present at work in NZ today is because they may have children and or an "underlying health condition”. Give me strength.

Given schools are back on Monday, they will lose the ‘childcare’ excuse. It's funny that my staff that have children have been working right through the lockdown from home, balancing home schooling, relationships with partners, not being able to get out (or away) and dealing with the mental and physical pressures that has come with it. Along with feeding the cat. Interesting isn’t it how differently the private sector with the discipline and constraints of competition acting upon it, reacts in times of crisis, from those whose jobs are guaranteed by Government and funded by my taxes.

I, and a few others, continue to call for an audit of this department or at least a public inquiry. The Department was in chaos before the virus landed on these shores and it has become an unmitigated disaster since.  I am expecting shortly to be told they are suspending all EOI selections under the smokescreen of the virus. The chaos, to be fair, has not been all of their own making. The Minister of Immigration has been missing in action for over two years and there has been no residence program in place since December 2019 when no one had even heard of this virus.

The Department has publicly said that they are back to processing residence applications with the same priorities that existed before the lockdown.

Those of you who have a skilled migrant category application sitting in the queue, priority will continue to be given to those who have claimed points for high salary ($51 plus per hour for the majority) and/or those who have claimed points for a job in New Zealand in an occupation that requires statutory registration.

And in a sign of things to come, the Immigration Department ‘communications’ people, sent out an update Wednesday this week, in effect firing a shot across the bow of the immigration advice industry. They have helpfully, just in case we haven't been reading the news, reminded us that unemployment in New Zealand is increasing by several thousand people a week (and that is with a wage subsidy in place).

That means greater scrutiny is going to be placed on Essential Skills Work Visas in particular. It has always been the case that those applying for an Essential Skills Work Visa, have that job tested against the local labour market. That is to say if the Department believes that a local "should" be available to fill that position the Work Visa should be declined. It doesn't matter if no New Zealander applied, or if those that apply don’t possess the skills/attitude/work history the employer requires, only that the immigration officer might conclude a New Zealander ‘should’ be able to do the job.

No doubt the acid will also go on employers to demonstrate they ‘should’ not be able to train someone to take up the role as well.

These are not new criteria, they have always underpinned and informed decisions on work visas. Since skilled unemployment dropped effectively to zero a few years ago and the country was advertising thousands more jobs than we had bodies to fill them, most immigration officers were not, at least in the case of our clients, routinely questioning whether there were locals available because demonstrably there was not. The labour market was that tight pretty much across the board so the labour market test was often applied ‘lightly’.

With unemployment peaking around 9% by the end of next month, before, Treasury heroically predicts, trending down to 4.2% in 24 months and with an election just around the corner, the scrutiny paid to the employer’s ‘genuine efforts to recruit’ is clearly going to increase.

My fear, and it is shared by those industry colleagues I've been in close contact with during the lockdown, is that in typical fashion we can expect the bureaucrats will take this signalling to the extreme. Many of us believe the default position will be to decline the Work Visa unless there's compelling evidence not to. Let's just say, we understand the culture and we know how they think.

This might even extend to people sitting in that skilled migrant residence queue waiting for Government to tell INZ how many resident visas it can approve this year and whose work visas might expire before a decision can be made. INZ, if they wanted to, could decline applications for ‘extensions’ to work visas on the grounds the incumbent ‘should have trained up a New Zealander’, the skilled migrant would then lose their job and the resident visa application must be declined given without that job they no longer score sufficient points. I should point out that today, the rules allow for a 12 month ‘extension’ to a work visa if someone is sitting in that queue. Whether that proves long enough remains to be seen.

There is no labour market test on a skilled migrant residency application. That is to say the government does not care whether you are "taking a job” from a New Zealander or not.  They will still give you residency.

The problem for skilled migrants now is time. In a perfect world those of you that are organised (like our clients) could secure a job, be selected from the skilled migrant pool within days, invited to apply 24 hours later, file a resident Visa application within 24 to 48 hours of that and if the application is low risk, the Department could (should!) process and approve the residency within a few days. Therefore within maybe three weeks of getting a job offer residency could/should be granted. No work visa would even be required.

Alas owing to the incompetence of the department and ever shifting political priorities (or as we have seen over the past 6 months, political silence), this has never happened. So virtually all SMC resident visa seekers have required work visas which apply different and tougher criteria.

Work Visa policy then has always undermined the government’s own skilled migrant residency objectives. No government has ever addressed that conflict. There are obvious simple solutions but that is for another blog.

What is quite clear is that these work visas are now going to become harder to get until we see unemployment back to the levels of recent years.

New Zealand continues to have critical skill shortages and will do coming out of lockdown and in the months that follow. We can now increase funding for educating our own (as announced this week in the budget) but can’t instantly ‘magic up’ Civil Engineers, Quantity Surveyors, Draughtsmen, technicians, tradesmen/artisans, teachers or IT professionals among others locally, so it is incumbent on the department to exercise the power we've just been reminded they have, carefully, and to take into account the bigger picture. I am not holding my breath on that score.

How they treat Work Visa applications over the next few months given they pretty much do whatever they want anyway, will have a direct impact on how this economy bounces back from the recession it is now in.

If they go too hard on work visas, they will destroy the skilled migrant category. And all New Zealand will suffer and stay in recession longer.

The government loves to remind us that we are "all in this together" and we are a ‘team of five million’. I do hope the government doesn't forget that migrants that we will desperately need in months to come, thousands of who are already here, invested in our joint future, are also part of that team of five million and should not be blocked by a ‘one size fits all’ default decline position in respect of work visas which I have a horrible feeling is exactly what is about to happen.

I hope they prove me wrong.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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Tags: INZ

Do you trust Jacinda Ardern?

Posted by Iain on May 6, 2020, 10:31 a.m. in Immigration New Zealand

If you do you won't be disturbed by a Bill amending the Immigration Act tabled in parliament this week allowing the government wide-ranging powers to change the way visas are, or are not, accepted and or processed. If you do trust the government, there is little to worry about.

Essentially, what the government is seeking to do is to be able to make decisions on groups of visa holders or applicants, en masse, rather than forcing people to file and then assess, individual applications. This means, as an example, they could say that everyone currently in New Zealand whose Visa will expire between ‘X’ date and ‘Y’ date, will not have to file an individual application, pay a fee or fill out an online form, they will be deemed to have a Visa until ‘Z’ date.

On the face of it, quite sensible.

However, as long as the Epidemic Pandemic Notice is in place, the existing legislation means that people whose visas expire, cannot become unlawful anyway. 

Perhaps the government is only thinking beyond the EPN and the protection that gives to Visa holders. Perhaps, they are thinking that when the EPN notice is lifted they will need to be able to give people a ‘free pass’ to leave the country without being unlawful when they do.

Perhaps they are only looking at stopping people overseas applying for visas for a while.

Perhaps.

On a more pragmatic and operational level, I suspect at least in part, they are only doing this because they have no plan to get the Department back to work any time soon. Those immigration officers at home who have been given laptop computers, and I understand they are still only being sent out now, almost seven weeks after lockdown started, have almost no capacity to process visas remotely. Over the past decade the Immigration Department has been trying to tack a new online Visa processing system onto an old software platform. I’m advised the cost so far has been $38 million and counting. (One assumes with the borders closed indefinitely they can stop spending $11 million a year ‘marketing’ NZ as a migrant destination and perhaps put that money toward building a proper IT system).

Covid-19 has exposed a dismal failure of planning and management. There has never been a Plan B in the Department, it seems, for anything, least of all a health emergency.

The Prime Minister continues to confirm, as excitement builds here about coming out of lockdown in a few more weeks and as talk of a "trans-Tasman Bubble" allowing quarantine-less travel between Australia and New Zealand grows, that the borders will remain closed for “a long time”. She is reluctant to put a date on it because of the obsession with ‘eliminating’ the virus from New Zealand shores. A ‘long time’ however is clearly not a short time.

Where I thought previously, based on her signaling, she might have been talking a few months, I'm more convinced than ever she is really talking about until a vaccine is created and made available not just to New Zealanders but the entire world. She just won’t come out and say it and our fawning media refuse to press her.

[STOP PRESS: Around the time we posted this, the PM all but confirmed this is her thinking - no vaccine, no open border - she has not ruled out all travel to NZ however so more questions....]

Our Prime Minister is fixated it seems on not budging from her one priority which is to keep New Zealanders “healthy”.

And that apparently means the borders must be closed for a ‘long time’ despite whatever other recession induced health issues that might create.

This Bill, which I understand will be given one select committee hearing before being passed into law and likely coming into effect in the middle of May, also then gives the government the ability to effectively shut down Visa applications from for example, people who are not in New Zealand. Again, that has some logic – if you have an Immigration Department sitting at home doing nothing, an ancient IT system that does not allow them to work remotely, no airlines flying and a closed border, then what is the point in accepting more temporary visa applications into the system?

The fear our clients have of course is that the bill also extends to suspending skilled migrant, parent and Investor pool draws and suspending "invitations to apply for a visa’.

The government has already suspended selecting expressions of interest from the skilled migrant pool. The reason given was they had no one to process applications because they're all sitting at home watching Netflix. I would take that at face value and not read anything more sinister into closing down the pool draws. They simply never had a Plan B that allows them to work remotely.

However I would be lying if I said I don't have some concerns about this. In February this year, before the lockdown and Immigration officials were sent home, there was around 11,000 skilled migrant resident visa applications that had been selected, invited to apply and which had been filed sitting in a queue waiting to be allocated for processing. That ‘waiting’ was two years for the majority back in February. Embarrassing for the Department, shrugged off by the Minister and disruptive for NZ employers and their migrant staff seeking certainty.

Could the government use this legislation to tell all those people that are sitting in that unallocated queue that their applications are going to be returned, along with a refund? Is this legislation a Trojan Horse allowing them to get rid of applications currently in the system?

The bill does not talk of declining or returning applications, including resident visas, that have already been filed. That would suggest there is no plan to deal with the backlog using this amendment. Therefore, those people, including several hundred of our own clients, should be able to rest easy, it appears that they are not about to be shafted by this legislation.

If you are less trusting, this legislation might be that Trojan Horse but if it was, we would strongly argue that it is not necessary.

Logic would suggest that the backlog of Residence cases for skilled migrants should organically fall because there’s going to be a lot of people sitting in that queue right now who had jobs when they filed their applications who now don’t, or soon won’t.  Numbers released by Treasury here suggest the unemployment rate has increased over the past six weeks from around 4% to 6%. And that is while there is still a relatively generous wage subsidy being paid out by the government to employers across the country. When that wage subsidy ends next month it is inconceivable that the numbers of people registering for unemployment will not jump significantly. Most Economists are talking about 9% or 10%. Some, even higher for the next two quarters.

It is interesting that in Australia where their wage subsidy has yet to be paid out, unemployment there is already estimated to be 10% with entire industries decimated. I can see no reason why New Zealand is going to be any different.

While most of our clients in New Zealand who are working have held on to their jobs, I suspect most employers are simply playing a waiting game and seeing what else the government might offer or how this economy is allowed to start coming back as the lockdown eases.

Logic suggests then the skilled migrant backlog will reduce significantly without government need to suspend or shut down the skilled migrant category. So maybe it’s as simple as that. They won’t need to use this amendment to deal with the backlog ‘problem’ they created.

At the back of my mind however is the prospect of the election coming up in September and given the Deputy Prime Minister holds a disproportionate amount of power despite his party only getting around 5-7% of the vote, it is not unreasonable to expect him and his colleagues to climb on their anti-immigration soapbox as they do every three years and demand more cuts. Could that extend to suspensions to programs like the skilled migrant category?

The fact that unemployment here is undoubtedly going to jump significantly does not mean skill shortages will evaporate. We are still 2000 teachers’ short for example. Our Universities still don't produce enough IT skills and engineers. We are still short of trade and technical people.

Might we see a suspension of the skilled migrant category completely? No more filing of EOIs? No more selections? No more invitations? I think that is possible.

The silence from government in regard to their plan for immigration is deafening.

You can thank the upcoming election for that I suspect.

Silent voids are always filled with chatter and speculation. Never more so than now. The Facebook gossip grapevine is working overtime. Online migrant chat groups and forums (the ultimate in the blind leading the blind) are exploding with ‘What are they going to do?’ questions. There are tens of thousands of people in New Zealand holding temporary visas who have filed residency applications desperate for certainty. The government is providing none.

Are they going to throw people out as soon as there are airlines to fly them and borders are open here and overseas?

Whether they would be so heartless is the big question.

If you trust Jacinda Ardern (I would like to count myself among those that do but that does not extend to her NZ First coalition bedfellows), then you have little to worry about.

If you don’t, then given the Prime Minister keeps telling us we are ‘all in this together’ and endlessly ‘to be kind to one another’, I presume that kindness equally extends to those her Government invited to the country and she then invited to file residence applications and they can stay, no matter what the recession has just thrown at them.

And who is to say she will still be the PM after September? - this law change will be lying there waiting for someone less 'kind'.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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INZ Building Walls

Posted by Iain on March 6, 2020, 6:28 p.m. in Immigration New Zealand

A couple of weeks ago when a new and inexperienced immigration officer made an inconsistent and incorrect call on a piece of policy implementation that affected one of our clients, a colleague emailed her and politely explained why we believed, as we had argued in our legal arguments accompanying the application, that based on INZ’s past interpretation of the rule she was incorrect.

None of this is new. It’s in some part why we exist. If NZ was consistently good there’d be no reason for our company to help people, prosper and grow to the size it has. What has changed is that I am no longer frightened to write about it. If these blogs turn some people off migrating to New Zealand then that is a price I am willing to pay to try and help those that want to live in NZ. I would add we continue to be busy in Australia as well but as one colleague recently observed now that he has been dealing with the NZ department for 12 months - the Australia immigration officers’ don’t engage but their level of policy knowledge is exponentially better than that of NZ immigration officers. He is right.

As is the case these days with INZ, the email went ignored.

Several polite follow ups later the officer came back and told us she had discussed our concerns with her Supervisor and the Supervisor, also relatively inexperienced, agreed with her. Not unexpected because we know how they roll but we needed to play the hierarchy game anyway, working our way till we found someone that might actually know INZ has a history.

We then went to the Supervisor who confirmed, without any cogent explanation, that (s)he agreed with the interpretation.

We knew eventually we’d have to go to the Manager (there are two - one has some recent visa experience but the other hasn’t processed visas for a few years so we had a 50/50 chance of getting some sensible answer). An email was sent to the Manager of the group, curiously called a ‘Practice Lead’ (like INZ has become a law firm or something - I wish, then they might start understanding and following their own rules). Several days and several reminders later the Practice Lead, confirmed her agreement with the interpretation of the inexperienced juniors.

All three were wrong or every previous identical situation where our interpretation had been agreed to by INZ had been assessed incorrectly and those clients were incorrectly granted their visas. I tend to think when you have 20 identical cases, 19 are assessed interpreting a rule one way leading to a positive outcome and one isn’t, the thinking of INZ about the 20th is probably the problem.

My colleague Paul, having ripped out most of his hair, then decided to approach INZ Head office where the policy and operations people sit, who write the rules and issue the guidelines and updates about policy/rules, and put it to them.

They wouldn’t engage and told us that it isn’t for them to tell immigration officers what the rules they wrote, actually mean in practical terms. We needed to deal with the case officer or the Practice ‘Lead’ (who was doing anything but leading).

When I chimed in and pointed out that there must be some function to the operations people other than passing the buck and all we wanted was a ‘yes we agree with your interpretation and here’s why’ or ‘no we don’t and here’s why’ and copied in all the parties to the conversation, then everyone, including us potentially, could have learned from the exchange.

Why would they not want to use this discussion in a positive way so everyone learned from it?

Strangely, but increasingly commonly they just shut down the conversation.

They are building a wall around themselves - not because they are right, but because they are wrong so often they feel under siege.

And they are.

When I chimed in and asked where then are we to go to to have grown up discussions about policy if not with the authors of the rules themselves, they replied that I should speak to our ‘industry association’.

That there isn’t one that represents companies like ours and the one that does exist has no power to force INZ to answer their questions, seemed to not occur to INZ.

What this case highlights is how far this Government department has fallen (which is saying something) and how defensive they have become. These lower level officers are now being left by their senior managers to do what they like, think what they like and decide what they like. No one intervenes. It seems despite protestations to the contrary, no one actually cares.

I am all for ‘empowerment’ but senior INZ management, confuse empowerment for abrogation of responsibility. We have been doing this work for decades now. We have a visa success rate in excess of 99% over that time across all forms of temporary and resident visas. Surely, that should stand for something?

If we explain politely to a case officer that their understanding of a rule is different to how it has been interpreted and implemented for 30 years by the department, shouldn’t that officer be told by their line superiors to perhaps think carefully before they reject our points, because INZ knows, we know, what we are talking about?

The churn in staff inside the INZ circus however is so high at around 30% a year, we are constantly dealing with officers who are brand new and have enormous power but little practical experience. The good ones always leave relatively quickly.

Those above them, wear, seemingly as a badge of honour, not engaging in visa work and hate intervening (and usually don’t). They have I imagine long ago forgotten the visa rules anyway. If you don’t have your nose in the rule book on a daily basis and are not applying it to real life situations, you can very quickly lose the knowledge to guide your own team.

Where once there was a depth of institutional knowledge where we could engage with senior and experienced managers, themselves willing to intervene, those days seem over. The knowledge that once existed and the attitude to engage with the likes of us who know they rules better than the bureaucrats do, has been quickly eroded in recent times.

What we now find ourselves doing is dealing with case officers with virtually unbridled power and free license to make mistakes, act inconsistently and those above and around them will circle the wagons and defend the decisions, even when they are demonstrably wrong.

When those decisions impact on people’s lives it is important that we, as trusted Advisers, have someone or somewhere to turn. Senior Managers continuously refuse to get their hands dirty (despite one or two telling us they will) and the best they offer these days is to recommend we use the official complaints portal on the department’s website. It is a typical Government complaint lodging process. It was clearly designed to put anyone off filing a complaint and is an absolute and utter waste of time. I’ve seen the stats - INZ get thousands of complaints every year about their service and visa outcomes yet only small numbers of complaints are upheld.

When they are judge and jury, can it be otherwise?

On a side note but related to this ‘Don’t look at me’ attitude of these functionaries, I read this week in information released to an industry colleague though the Official Information Act, how INZ arrived at the two criteria that give some skilled migrants priority over everyone else who paid the same fee for a resident visa.

There was nothing in the information that explained why an Electrician is more worthy than the $100,000 a year Export Marketing Manager responsible for generating export dollars. Or why the Software Developer earning $104,000 is more valuable to the economy than the $103,000 a year Software Developer, yet one will get processed within 4-6 months and the other will take two years.

The thing that leaped out at me was the most concerning issue for these most senior of INZ managers was that there’d be an uptick in complaints. It was in fact the only downside they identified.

Not the damage their decision making is doing to NZ as a migrant destination…

Not the damage these arbitrary criteria might do to employers and the labour market, still desperate for skills we don’t produce in NZ…

Not the damage this disaster does to New Zealand’s international reputation as a place to do business…

They could only imagine they’d get more complaints. Well, I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.

Until next week

Southern Man

 

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Tags: INZ | Immigration

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