Where Is New Zealand Immigration Policy Heading In 2021?

Where Is New Zealand Immigration Policy Heading In 2021?

This is undoubtedly the question on many migrants’ minds right now. With little policy around to speak of, Wilson Du of Immigration Chambers examines what might transpire this year.

Overall Trend: Further Tightening

As we know, 2020 was a year of stand down for the New Zealand immigration industry and several factors, with the predominant one being Coronavirus, led to a backlog of immigration applications. The total number of migrants in New Zealand decreased over the year and Immigration NZ (INZ) cites that new international students dropped by 90%.

In terms of immigration policies, the government suspended the EOI selection for the Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) in April 2020 on the grounds of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Parent Residency Category has been suspended for the past four years and there is no sign yet of when this will re-open. Due to the border closure temporary visa applications for applicants based overseas, such as visitor visa and student visas have not been accepted or processed by Immigration New Zealand (INZ) for a whole year, with very few exceptions.

These changes have caused great distress and anxiety for many applicants. We believe that in 2021, this overall trend of New Zealand’s current immigration policy and its implementation may be further tightened. The border is unlikely to be fully opened before our population is vaccinated. As we know New Zealand’s anti-pandemic performance is exceptional and the Government will work to preserve and consolidate this achievement. Therefore, New Zealand will not rashly liberalise its borders whilst Covid-19 is not under control in key countries. Simultaneously, many people in Europe and the United States have expressed a strong desire to migrate to New Zealand, which makes the New Zealand Government confident in its future migrant sources. With New Zealand’s many ‘suiters’, the Government is unlikely to lower immigration thresholds, but rather raise them.

Skilled migrant requirements may increase due to policy changes

As the most important migrant category in New Zealand, the SMC always takes up the largest percentage of the immigration quota. However, INZ has not accepted any new applications in recent months as the Government has repeatedly postponed the selection of Expressions of Interest (EOI) due to Covid-19. On one hand, INZ is taking advantage of the chance to process existing applications, most of which have been waiting for allocation to a case officer for over 18 months. Immigration Minister, Kris Faafoi stated recently, “A review of the skilled migrant category is one of my priorities for this term. Decisions around the scope and timing of any such review are currently under consideration. No decisions on settings or planning range have been made at this stage.” We make the following forecast regarding SMC policy changes:

Firstly, SMC EOI selection will possibly resume in July, August or later in 2021 when the updated polices come into effect. SMC applications submitted in early July 2019 have all been allocated to a case officer, which means INZ will finish most of the backlog cases within the next few months. This in turn means that INZ has officers will become available to assess new applications when restarting the EOI selection.

Secondly, SMC policies are in the process of adjustment which INZ signalled when they delayed an immigration advisor training seminar last December. From our experience, we think the new policy may be announced before the end of April.

Thirdly, the potential policy changes may focus on meeting the needs of the labour market based on the supply and demand of different occupations by region. The importance of skilled employment will also be upweighted. INZ is likely to establish a ‘beneficial’ policy, for example, bonus points for migrant workers who have a skilled job in remote areas rather than big cities like Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. It will encourage applicants to work in remote areas for a certain number of years and likely ease the granting of residency on the grounds of their work experience in these further afield areas.  

Fourthly, the median wage increase is imperative. The minimum wage in New Zealand will be raised to $20 per hour from 1 April 2021, which is bound to push up the median salary. Even if the Minister of Immigration has promised not to raise the median wage until the end June, the possibility of the new median wage of $27 per hour seems unavoidable in the second half of 2021, which will affect the SMC applications submitted after that time.

Fifthly, the threshold of 160 points for SMC may remain unchanged. Since the current threshold of 160 points is not low, there is not much space for further increase. Even if it rises, the increase in range should be between 10-20 points. Alternatively, INZ may restructure the points system, adjusting the required criteria and points for each aspect.

Sixthly, high-paying worker applicants (twice the median wage) will be encouraged by INZ, which in turn will normalise the priority assessment of these applications. Remuneration could be an important factor INZ considers in assessing a SMC application.

Lastly, the processing period for the SMC will be significantly shortened, possibly within a one-year timeframe from submitting the full application. We also see no border or Covid-19 related reason for INZ not inviting those who qualify to apply, as they could be selecting immigrants now who are already in the country. By not doing so, INZ risks these skilled migrants leaving our shores.

The tangled-up Business Migrant Category

The Business Migrant Category includes the investor 1, investor 2, entrepreneur, and parent retirement category which has the features of both the family and business categories.

Although New Zealand’s economy has been dramatically affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Zealand Government has been slowing down the process of business migrant applications from overseas. The reason is not that the New Zealand Government does not want these investments but rather cares about its non-discriminatory external image and is unwilling to easily grant an exception to allow investors to enter New Zealand once their visa is approved. Therefore, INZ can still accept business migrant applications whereas they hold the applications if the applicants are offshore, rather than directly approving applications.

If applicants are offshore, INZ does not want to arouse any concerns the Government may have prejudice towards non-business applicants by allowing them to enter the country during the period of border closure. But we can see that the Government will eventually choose benefit over its image as lockdowns have imposed significant pressure on New Zealand’s financial situation. This pushes the Government to consider how to deal with its huge loans and bringing in investments would be an efficient approach to address such. New Zealand’s economy urgently needs foreign investment as an injection boost.

Parent Residency Category: the salary requirements for sponsored children could be slightly reduced

Although the Labour Party declared before the election that the Government would lower the threshold of the annual income requirement of sponsored children for the parent residency category, this seems to have been more for the purpose of obtaining votes. In actuality, there have been no new updates on this for four months. Moreover, under the current exceptionally high threshold, we believe that INZ will only offer a minimal reduction of the threshold.

Furthermore, the current quota of 1,000 in the parent resident category is impossible to cover the massive demands of the past five years. It is estimated that INZ will not restart this category until mid-2021 at the earliest.

Therefore, due to the extremely high threshold and long waiting time, only a limited number of parents could obtain residency through this category.

Work Visa Category: the reforms come into force, July 2021

According to the work visa reform plan announced by INZ, a new temporary work visa will be introduced in the second half of 2021 to replace six types of employer-assisted work visas, including the essential skills work visa and talent visa (WTR).

Once the new policy is applied, all employers who need to recruit non-New Zealanders must apply for accreditation from INZ, otherwise they cannot offer jobs to migrants. Therefore, we suggest that it is better for applicants whose work visas expire in the second half of 2021 to apply for a new visa as soon as possible, before the new policy comes into effect and the median wage may increase to $27 per hour.

In the last half of the year, Talent Work Visas, including those on the long-term shortage list and Accredited employers will be terminated. Applicants who are eligible for the Talent Work Category need to take advantage of this last chance to make their submissions.

A certain number of international students may return to New Zealand

As a significant industry in New Zealand, the education sector was dramatically affected by Covid-19. The Ministry of Education and Universities have reached an agreement to allow 1,000 international students to enter New Zealand this year. Whether INZ will allow a further number of international students to return will depend on the control of the coronavirus and availability in managed isolation quarantine facilities.

Post-study Open Work Visa holders stuck overseas may be allowed to return

Post-study open work visa holders who have always been ignored from travel exemption policies by INZ may be allowed to enter the country as vaccination of the whole population is expected to complete in 2021.

As for international students who cannot submit a post-study Open Work Visa overseas due to the current situation, they need not worry about their eligibility since INZ is likely to have special arrangements for them.   

Be optimistic

The Covid-19 pandemic is the root cause of most immigration issues in 2020. We are now undoubtedly in another challenging year for people who dream of migrating to New Zealand.

Perhaps in 2021 or even 2022, due to the ever-developing situation here and abroad, New Zealand’s immigration policy may become more conservative.

We cannot impose any influence on immigration policies, but we still must adopt a positive attitude and earnestly make all preparations within our capacity. Only in this way, when opportunity arises, can we seize it.