More to think about in the ever-changing immigration space!8 Sep 2020

The world has changed. COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the globe. New Zealand, though faring comparatively well, is slowly succeeding getting on top of a second wave. The border is closed to everyone but New Zealand citizens and residents, with very few exceptions. Immigration policy has been shaken up, modified, but in dribs and drabs as it responds to various visa situations which continue to evolve from the COVID-19 situation.

New Zealand’s overall COVID-19 pandemic response has involved a very strong stance on the border closure as the main line of defence. This has meant that the bulk of Government attention to immigration has been put towards managing arrivals together with the situation of temporary visa holders in New Zealand. The strength of the managed isolation and quarantine system at the border is a, maybe the, prominent issue for the coming general elections on 19 October 2020.

In this space, neither side of the political spectrum is making any commitment about broader future immigration settings as there is little political capital to be gained in the current environment. While a long-planned revamp of employer-assisted temporary work visa policy has begun rollout, a holistic immigration plan, one that accounts for the scale and complexities of various visa scenarios arising out of the pandemic, will not be seen prior to the election.

Some categories of visa holders in New Zealand have been granted automatic visa extensions, the latest seeing many visitor visas being granted a second visa extension for another 5 months. Temporary visa applications for offshore applicants have been suspended and the revenue Immigration New Zealand has foregone from this reduction in visa application numbers, and the automated no-cost visa extensions must be substantial, and potentially in excess of NZ$20 million per month!

Post-election the Government, in whatever incarnation, will be looking to sustainably and cautiously implement the opening of New Zealand’s borders to a limited range of people. Long-term strategy on this front will need to effectively manage the health risks posed by overseas arrivals. Though it is all speculation at this point, there are some indicators of potential policy directions. The approach will likely be very targeted, focussing on those students, tourists, workers and permanent migrants, who may be able to play a greater role in New Zealand’s economic recovery.

Skilled Migrant Category Expressions of Interest

In April, INZ announced the deferral of Expression of Interest (EOI) selections for the main Skilled Migrant (SMC) and Parent Category residence visas. At the time, INZ stressed that it was a temporary measure, with the situation to be reassessed as the COVID-19 situation continued to unfold. The decision was a necessary one as INZ’s visa processing capacity was significantly reduced due to lockdown. Also obtaining the necessary documents and evidence to make a residence application was very challenging for applicants with many Government departments closed and unable to issue documents such as birth and police certificates.

The question now, is what changes will be made to immigration policy before EOI selections resume, if they resume? The number of EOIs in the system is not information that has been publicly released but this will be several thousand. One could also assume that at least half of those EOIs have been lodged with the current minimum 160 points requirement. Though no plans to increase the EOI points selection mark from 160 have been announced, we will not have certainty on this until after the election and it is possible, and very likely, that the points threshold for an EOI to be selected will be increased. INZ simply cannot afford to select the large number of EOIs with 160 points that are presently sitting in the EOI pool at this time.

At Pathways, we are of the opinion that professional registration will also become even more important for SMC applicants. It is already significant, in that INZ prioritises applicants who hold professional registration (for example, teachers, doctors and nurses) and SMC policy may formally change to apportion additional bonus points for such registration. Something has to change because there are many teachers and nurses who can only achieve the current 160 point passmark and the Government cannot afford to see these key skills not being transitioned into residence.

If you were invited to apply for a SMC residence visa before the increase, INZ will assess your application against the thresholds in place on the date your EOI was selected. For everyone else, now that selections are deferred, it is difficult to know the criteria which will apply to your application if, and when, EOI selections resume. However, while SMC policy changes are unlikely to happen any time soon, applicants have little choice but to continue to lodge their EOIs. Our advice here is to claim as many EOI points as entitled to and for applicant’s who have EOIs lodged they should revisit their EOI to see how they can increase their points above 160.

Skilled Migrant Category processing queue

SMC policy, and particularly the queue of residence visa applications, has been the topic of media and public scrutiny now for an extended period. A high number of people holding work visas (before COVID-19, estimated around six percent of the New Zealand population), understandably meant a high number of people being eligible and lodging residence applications. This resulted in a large number of mainly SMC and Residence-from-work (RFW) residence applications being queued for processing.

However prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, INZ was already in the difficult position of having to manage its residence application processing without any Government guidance or targets, which is what informs INZ on how many applications it can approve. The New Zealand Residence Programme, which is the name given to the number of people able to be approved for residence in any period, has not been updated since 31 December 2019. This indecision has presumably been a consequence of the different priorities within the coalition Government with a general procrastination on key immigration settings the unfortunate outcome – and leaving INZ hamstrung!

Since June, (and following the deferral of EOI selections) INZ has made some headway into the backlog of lodged residence applications. However, according to data made available by MBIE, there are still over 30,000 SMC applications on hand (and over 6,500 Residence from Work applications). SMC processing times are as long as 18 months and applications lodged February 2019 are now being allocated for processing. However, the allocation of applications will have come too late for many applicants who have either lost their jobs or had their employment terms changed, or pay rate reduced, as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 so as to render them now ineligible under the policy settings. After spending so much time, money and effort to reach this point, and to now fail at this last hurdle through no fault of their own, these people will understandably be very distraught as they now face a very uncertain future and great disappointment that their New Zealand dream is quickly vanishing.

Interestingly with the border closed and no new international students (who traditionally make up most future resident applicants) on the horizon the INZ focus is now on getting on top of the visa situation in New Zealand. This is likely to entail a focus on ensuring applicants who clearly meet policy settings, get their visa outcomes as soon as possible. While those who do not have a secure visa standing will, over time, find that their options to remain in New Zealand limited and who will increasingly be left with the only option being to return to their home country.

With only a very small number of visa holders entering New Zealand, and the number of new visa applications being significantly reduced, (and a Government on “election holiday”) the opportunity is available to INZ to proactively and quickly get on top of its workload so that it is well-positioned for action when the new Government is in place and can make some decisions. The only impediment here is the significant resource which is dedicated to the border management, which is likely to remain, and the challenge of shifting resource around within INZ in response to dealing with matters such as the automatic visa renewals which can be very resource intensive to process. This situation is also helped with the INZ offshore offices, particularly in Beijing, re-opening and the additional resource this will contribute to the online visa processing capability.

With the “volume” visa situations now largely sorted INZ will also need to turn its attention to addressing the many and significant anomalies which COVID-19 has impacted on within the smaller visa categories such as has those of the Investor and Parent categories.


There is a lot happening in the immigration space – and a lot more than what is briefly touched on here!

Whatever happens this election, the Government can be expected to pursue the safe and progressive easing of border restrictions – something we all endorse. Alongside this, it will be necessary to implement a plan for those migrants who have, or who plan to, contribute to New Zealand and to make a permanent home here. However the only current certainty in negotiating this pathway will be that it will be thwart with challenges and changes and many unknowns!

If you are interested in making a visa application, whether for work or residence, it is a good idea to obtain the best professional advice and assistance possible so that you, at least, are properly fitted-out for the ups-and-downs of the visa journey which you will encounter in these turbulent times!

Contact Pathways NZ to speak with a licensed immigration adviser who can guide you. Let’s Talk!.