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Covid-19 and its effect on immigration.

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

New Zealand detected its first case of Covid-19 on February 28, 2020, according to the Ministry of Health. Once we had detected 100 cases, the Prime Minister, on the advice of the Director-General of Health, decided to close the borders.

That resulted in a mass-halt in immigration, with only a certain number of people allowed an exemption to the border restrictions. Those who were allowed in, were often subject to self-isolation rules and later on, mandatory quarantine.

With stage 4 lockdown introduced, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) had even less capacity to operate, and as a result, most case officers had to stay home. Due to security issues, many of those case officers were not able to work from home. Businesses have also taken a hit, with most unable to operate during level lockdown. Some were lucky enough to change tact, and offer services appropriate to the situation. The government (the state executive branch), and INZ in particular recognised that it could not individually assess each applicant, and with lockdown meaning many businesses failed to make a profit, redundancies began to appear, and work visa holders (most work visas are tied to one employer) were often no longer meeting the requirements of their visas - for example, full time work, paid at a certain rate, with a particular employer, at a particular branch.

Parliament (the law making branch of the state) drafted the Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill, which has recently passed its final reading. The new law will give INZ the power to vary the conditions of certain classes of visa en masse, and prevent offshore applicants from applying for visas that they can't possibly enter the country to enact. Priority now has been placed on processing visas for applicants who are already in New Zealand. This includes (among other things) new work visas, student visas, and residency visas.

Work visas, and several classes of residency are inherently tied to places of employment. With many businesses not able to recover (despite the government's wage subsidy), redundancies are inevitable - and with that, work visas which are employer-specific. The government was set to roll out a new work visa system, replacing the myriad of work visas we currently have, with one singular work visa, based on employer accreditation.

Any employer wanting to hire foreign workers would need to be accredited under the new system. It is worth noting that this proposed method of accreditation is not the same as our current accreditation system (whereby specific employers have demonstrated that the New Zealand workforce does not have sufficient local talent to meet their demands).

Whether this new work visa/accreditation overhaul will happen according to the proposed time-frames isn't known. This will cause concern for both visa holders, and employers. While it's not possible for people offshore to enter New Zealand currently, without meeting the strict border exemption requirements, they can still prepare for when the border eventually does re-open. Up-skilling, studying, preparing your CV, researching the job market, and figuring out what skills may be in demand here in the future, are all proactive steps applicants can undertake right now. However, with the influx of New Zealanders retreating home before lockdown, the labour market is expected to change, and skills that were greatly in demand before, may not be so in the coming months.

Given the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on not just our own country, but others, it may be some time until INZ are back to full capacity, and have their already large backlog (going back to 2018) under control. The government, and INZ have not yet given any indication as to when the border may re-open to migrants. Some experts speculate that it may be as soon as a few months, others, when a vaccine becomes available. Given the time it normally takes for a vaccine to be created (up to 10 years in most cases), it may not be worth-while hoping for a vaccine to provide global herd immunity.

What may be the case, as some have suggested, is that the border may gradually re-open to holders of particular visa types, people from certain countries, or people with skills that are considered in demand - see the Long Term Skill Shortage List as an example, but keeping in mind that it will likely change.

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