Looking ahead to the year to come23 Dec 2020

What a year it has been! Clichés such as this seem woefully inadequate to describe 2020, and yet we fall back on them. The truth is, it’s hard to come up with any phrase that neatly captures the full extent of the upheaval we have all experienced in the past 12 months.

In terms of immigration, we have, of course, seen tremendous changes. As you will be aware, earlier in the year, New Zealand took the extraordinary measure of closing its borders to everyone but New Zealand citizens and residents, with very few exceptions. It has been a year of constant change and adjustment in the immigration sector, and we look to 2021 with hope and optimism that some stability can be reclaimed. New Zealand has fared very well compared to other parts of the world, and it is together that we have managed to place ourselves in such good stead for the future.

To help take at least some of the guesswork out of what the future may hold in the immigration space, we note with interest the Briefing for the Incoming Minister for Immigration. This document, which was recently made available to the public, sets out four priority areas of focus over the next three years:

• Safe and staged re-opening of the border
• Improving the skill level of people being granted temporary and residence work visas to support domestic labour market and economic objectives
• Ensuring operationally and financially sustainable models for Immigration New Zealand
• Progressing the work focused on reducing migrant exploitation

Given New Zealand’s success in managing the outbreak of COVID-19, it was anticipated that the focus would shift to economic recovery. The Briefing identifies that the safe expansion of entry categories is vital to this endeavour. This means that residence visa settings will be amended, to optimise the economic benefit that New Zealand can derive from its workforce and to avoid displacing any New Zealand citizen or permanent resident workers.

Global competition for highly-skilled migrants will be fierce in this phase of economic recovery, and the Briefing states that new policy will encourage the entry of highly-skilled workers and investors. Though the document is mostly silent on the details of any new investor category visa policy, it addresses the residence visa system and its relationship to local labour market conditions more generally.

The Briefing acknowledges that current residence visa settings have resulted in a long queue for residence . The number of on-hand residence applications has increased from around 9,000 in June 2018 to 25,000 in June 2020. New settings will narrow eligibility criteria to shorten the queue and to attract top talent to New Zealand. We consider it very likely that the eligibility criteria for the Skilled Migrant Category of residence visa will be overhauled before any selections from the pool of Expressions of Interest resume.

The Briefing also indicates that there may be more flexibility for the migrant workforce already onshore, allowing them to work in alternate sectors where New Zealanders are unavailable or unable to fill the roles. Currently there are around 200,000 people holding work visas onshore, this kind of flexibility would lessen the need to bring in new workers where there is someone already in New Zealand willing and able to do the work. The Government’s recent announcement that work visa holders will receive another extension will help to facilitate this planned policy adjustment with employer-assisted visas expiring from 1 January 2021 to 30 June 2021 (inclusive) automatically extended by another six months. Visas held by partners and dependent children of these visa holders will also be extended.

Several other areas of review are flagged in the Briefing, including a review of the Immigration Act 2009, family visa categories and international education visa arrangements. One area where decisions are expected imminently is the new employer accreditation standards as part of the new work visa system.

Beyond this, predictions in the area of immigration policy amendments remain largely speculative, especially in the absence of official announcements around the nitty-gritty of new policy. Indeed, the released Briefing document itself provides only an overview. It is also heavily redacted. Though we are still awaiting the full details of immigration policy changes, what we can be confident of is that change is imminent. Or, perhaps more accurately given what 2020 has taught us: change is constant. In the face of this ongoing uncertainty, we take to heart another lesson that the year has offered us: the best bet is to be prepared and to have a plan.

This year has been a very difficult one, for many people. In New Zealand, we have been fortunate, and we go into the Christmas period with gratitude and optimism. Wherever you are and whatever your situation, everyone at Pathways wishes you a safe holiday season and all the very best for the New Year.

If in the New Year, you will be proceeding on your New Zealand immigration journey, please do not hesitate to contact us to speak with a licensed immigration adviser. In other words, Let’s Talk!