An Open Letter To The Prime Minister

May 21, 2020
Iain MacLeod

Dear Prime Minister,

You have spent the past two months exhorting us to be kind to one another as the county locked down and the national focus turned to eliminating the Coronavirus. You have reminded us daily that we are a ‘team of five million’, standing ‘together’, staying ‘kind’ to fight off the coronavirus. It seems that battle has largely been won. Your communication on the health fight has been world class and faultless. How we treat each other is dear to your heart. I salute you for all of that.

The national focus is turning to helping the economy recover from the shocking recession we now find ourselves in. In some ways locking the country down was the easy bit. How we recover economically will be the true test.

My question is where do the tens of thousands of highly skilled migrants currently in NZ and who have taken you up on your Government’s invitation (and congratulations) to file a resident visa application, fit into your plan?

Numbers are anonymous – every one of those roughly 23,000 people sitting, waiting, wondering what tomorrow might bring, are already in your immigration system and are people, mums and dads, a great many with children in tow, who have been here in some cases several years all of whom have given up a lot to join the team of five million because successive governments, and to be fair, the private sector, have marketed the country as a place to come and settle.

They are all now stuck in policy limbo. And the silence is deafening.

Migrants tend to be something of an afterthought for most governments. Skilled migrants are viewed as economic ‘units’ filling jobs we cannot fill ourselves. If as you demonstrate daily, it is time for a new kind of politics and a new kind of economy, your silence over where these 23,000 next door neighbours and work colleagues fit is deeply concerning.

We are not talking about people not yet in New Zealand, we are talking about people already here. People who were busy building lives with the skills you said we needed.

Immigration policy is usually an ‘add on’ to our core economic and social objectives. Migrants are seen as disposable – we view migrants for the most part from what we get out of the deal. That is to some extent understandable but not only is it not ‘kind’, it is also self-defeating.

We are going to have skills shortages regardless of the state of the economy and the billions about to be spent on up-skilling Kiwis, whilst laudable, will have no-one gaining trade or other qualifications, held by those migrants you invited to file residency applications, for three to four years. Right now there is around 23,000 people in that skilled migrant queue, with at least 11,000 main applicants all who went into the lockdown with highly skilled jobs who had been paying their taxes, contributing to the economy and adding to the social fabric of the nation.

Before the coronavirus hit the Immigration department was already in chaos. It is now an order of magnitude worse as only now, eight weeks after lockdown, immigration officers slowly return to work. A virus is a convenient smokescreen for all sorts of ills and it has been seized upon by INZ management to mask years of poor and ineffectual leadership, in part caused by a lack of political direction and oversight.

This chaos had its origins in:

  1. Your government letting the immigration programme, which determines how many resident visas will be granted over an 18 month period, end in December 2019 with no replacement being put in place (we are still waiting). Without a residence programme INZ is flying blind on numbers. INZ management is left guessing the numbers they can and should approve. And they have made some strange choices as to who gets priority
  2. The queue for skilled migrant residence applications to be allocated was sitting at 2 years before anyone had heard of coronavirus. Two years when the average case probably doesn’t take more than an hour or two to process when done efficiently by a skilled and committed bureaucracy
  3. No apparent contingency planning for a shock of this magnitude appears to have been in place. There was no Plan B for coronavirus as there wasn’t in 2011 when INZ was forced to shut down the Christchurch branch following their earthquakes. INZ was left nearly ten years ago now with its processing pants down and they’ve pretty much stayed down ever since
  4. INZ management decided a few years ago to pool all visa applications of a particular type in one geographical locality (all visitor visas processed in INZ’s ‘hub’ in Beijing for example). That has been exposed as ill conceived and dangerous. When the Beijing hub was closed down in late January as the virus hit China, the department had limited to no capacity to process visitor visas anywhere else. That meant a cascade of failures as other visa categories went on hold (like New Zealanders trying to get work and student visas for their non-Kiwi partner and children). The problem hasn’t gone away.
  5. For over ten years the Department has been trying, clumsily, to transition to an electronic online visa processing model. Tens of millions of dollars have so far been spent on trying to tack a new online processing system onto an old platform. With lockdown and immigration staff being sent home there was limited to no capacity to process resident visas for those skilled migrants. The system has ground to a halt.
  6. Your government has continued previous administrations penchant for spending millions of dollars every year marketing this country to migrants – money that arguably could and should have been spent building an IT system. Money that presumes otherwise highly intelligent and skilled wannabe Kiwis don’t know how to use Google search….I have often wondered how many new residents NZ gained out of sending a team of INZ management and marketers, no doubt travelling business class, to wine and dine in Chicago when the All Blacks played Ireland a couple of years ago.

During the lockdown we have continued to ask your senior managers critical questions on how highly skilled migrants sitting in your ‘managed’ queue are going to be treated now, if:

  1. They have lost their job and consequently have insufficient ‘points’ to qualify for residence
  2. They have taken a pay cut which pulls their ‘effective hourly rate’ (the definition of whether a job is skilled or not) below the policy minimum
  3. They took a pay cut for a few weeks dropping them below the required hourly minimum but which has now, or will be, restored to ‘skilled’ levels (technically they don’t meet the rules any more) before your officers look at their case
  4. They have had their hours cut below the minimum policy allows of 30 but are still in their skilled job

I could go on.

The response has been ’All these questions and many more are sitting on the Minister’s desk’.

And that Minister hasn’t been seen nor heard since the country went into lockdown. Truth be told he wasn’t seen much before that either.

Here is my suggestion.

Immediately close the skilled migrant category down to all new applications for six months. Honour the invitations already issued. Regroup.

Use that six months to:

  1. Clear the decks. As quickly as you can approve all 11,000 odd applications sitting waiting for processing and a decision without delay. If it looks credible, approve it subject to character and security checks. They can’t go anywhere if you decline them now anyway
  2. Use this period to think about who you employ and change it – the sad reality is employing legions of migrants in the department who have English as a second (or third) language might be a good cultural idea (know your customer and all that) but the truth is for the most part many do not understand the rules because they can’t understand the rules. Use the opportunity to employ local law and other graduates who will now be only too happy to get an entry level government job that pays $60,000 plus. Build a level of institutional knowledge that has been lost from INZ over the past decade. Might put me out of business, but if it’s best for the country, I’ll take one for the team of five million.
  3. Fire whoever has been working on your IT programme. Start again. Build a ‘fit for purpose’ IT system allowing all resident visas to be able to be filed and processed electronically (the Aussies have been doing this for years). Make this INZ’s ‘Manhattan Project’. Work triple shifts. Work weekends. Build it. There’s a ton of IT talent in this country that could do it (hell, we have one at IMMagine I’d happily share with you which allowed us to work remotely right through the lockdown and we do what you do)
  4. Stop marketing NZ to the world given the borders are closed and you keep signaling a vaccine is what will be needed to re-open fully. Reassign those millions of dollars to where it is needed – staff training and IT. Build capacity. Both human and electronic.

No one, apart from a few hard of heart types, could begrudge this ‘kindness’. Yes there’s some political risk but spend some of your capital so richly built up through this crisis.

Sell it as self-serving for the nation if you must if kindness won’t cut it politically when talking about immigrants. We will still need their energy and commitment to get through this, even those who may have lost, or will soon lose their jobs. You invited them….and they came when we called.

And if you thought it might lose you a few votes, remind all those that might think in such a hard hearted way that every one of those migrants is highly skilled. And it was for the most part the Government that encouraged them to come, it was the Government that congratulated them when they got their job, the government that congratulated them when they got their work visa, the Government that congratulated them when they were ‘selected’ from the pool of skilled aspirants wanting to live here, the Government that congratulated them when it invited them to apply for residence and it was the Government that took their thousands of dollars in fees. Those people had sold their houses, resigned their jobs, left behind social networks for the chance of something better and a future for their children by contributing (for immigration is a two-way street).

Kiwis believe in fairness. How would we like to be treated if the boot was on the other foot right now?

And do yourself a favour. Use the next six months to reset and rebuild the highly dysfunctional immigration department, shut down any new applications for six months (those who haven’t yet filed a case will still have their chance in time if and when you get round to announcing your current residence programme we have been waiting for since December 2019).

Even if some New Zealanders don’t much care about migrants as people and only think about migrants as numbers, I think you appreciate this is a crisis for them as well. They are real people. Just like you and me.

If you think of them as most kiwis do – as our friends and next door neighbours, work colleagues, members of the local cricket or netball club or that guy that installs your internet, fixes your car, keeps the water flowing through the pipes or designs those roads – they have all been contributing to the team of five million before and during the virus battle.

They are already part of the team of five million. Let them stay.

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