Why Do I Do What I Do?

April 26, 2019
Iain MacLeod

I was asked few days ago in South Africa why I do this work. It was funny because I was in a very reflective mood as I passed my 30th anniversary helping people establish their residence eligibility and working for them to process the visas necessary for the new life that they were after.

I think she was surprised with my answer. Of course I get a great deal of pleasure out of helping people with what is the biggest decision of their lives and assisting them with what is undeniably an incredibly emotional and complex process where getting things 98% right actually means failure.

I explained I do this work more because I am a New Zealander and these immigrants are needed for New Zealand to be the best it can be.

Increasingly, however, I feel it is like we are having to drag these migrants, exhausted, over the line. It is taking increasing effort from us as we deal with an immigration department which is out of control. To be fair, they too are suffering from an inability to attract the kind of staff with the intellectual capacity to deal with the complexities of this process. Good young people are being fast tracked to management within the department who are now rushing for the exits and looking for ways to escape the madness. Too much career deadwood remains in senior roles.

I am increasingly feeling a level of despair at the calibre of visa officers employed. I am dismayed at the unwillingness or inability of INZ managers to deliver on any of the myriad of promises constantly made to improve service delivery. Lots of talk. Little real change.

It is telling that it takes just as long to obtain any kind of visa today as it did when I started out in this business at the end of 1988, a time when we did not have instant communication, emails or the Internet. Despite technological advancements, what has not changed is the department continues to be a hotbed of distrust and paranoia. I do acknowledge that at times it cannot be an easy job but the department management has isolated themselves from the decision makers sitting at the immigration counter. In this absence of leadership, the quality of the decision-making continues to spiral downwards and alarm.

In their ‘MBA-speak’ the Managers probably call it ‘empowerment’ of the officers on the front line but the truth is what is happening at the counter level is truly frightening. It is quite clear that inexperienced and poorly trained officers with enormous amounts of power are being left with little effective guidance or support to make some very important decisions. Decisions which change futures.

Senior management, almost as a badge of honour, proclaim they don’t need to know immigration rules. There was a time not so long ago when these managers had all worked as visa officers and this institutional knowledge of the rules was seen as vital to credible service delivery. If the immigration department was a profit motivated enterprise, I would suggest they would have gone out of business a long time ago. The entire system is in a state of constant crisis but as a government monopoly we can’t go anywhere else to get better service and so we are all stuck with whatever they choose to deliver no matter how damaging it is to the country.

At the same time, given the reality that New Zealand in effect has little to no skilled unemployed people, means that the department is being forced to employ a calibre of person who is out of their intellectual depth. Above them anyone with a modicum of potential has been fast tracked to management without the solid grounding and years of experience that this process demands.

We have been advertising lately for someone with in-depth immigration policy knowledge to join the company and we have had two Immigration Department managers apply to join us. I wouldn’t generally entertain any ex-immigration officer simply because they come from an environment of negativity where distrust of migrants and employers is the order of the day, whereas we are employed to try and find ways to say yes. What was truly interesting is that both are frustrated and alarmed at the calibre of people being employed in decision making roles and their inability to ensure a service delivery standard that matches the rhetoric of those in management above them.

One described the immigration department as “a shambles” and expressed frustration that they could not trust the decision-making ability of those at the front line. One described a culture that is so deeply entrenched and negative they feel it will never change. That was a very frank admission; nothing we did not know already because we deal with this culture on a daily basis. What’s so surprised these young managers was just how bad it is on the inside. Enormous power is vested in people who do not know what they doing.

Having otherwise good people who join the public service and have been fast tracked into management roles apply for a job with a company like ours and admit that they do not know immigration policy is a frightening reflection on how removed from reality the immigration department managers have become. Can you imagine any business having managers who don’t understand the product or service that has been offered and wear it as some sort of badge of honour?

I have a case on now that I have written about previously where an application was declined when the department decided that the position that the applicant was working in was not skilled (despite granting a work visa that required that it must be). The position was obviously skilled but as I warned the client at the time of our being retained, the department would do all that they could to find a reason to decline it. Not because they should, but because the position the client held represented a type of job the bureaucracy was not happy to approve despite it meeting all the criteria. The case was declined because the job was not skilled.

Around that time the government introduced a new rule which changed how previously “unskilled” roles were going to be assessed through applying a salary test. An ‘effective hourly dollar rate’ was introduced and it is a simple criteria. At a certain number of dollars per hour being paid a job that was not previously deemed to be skilled, now was, simply by virtue of the dollars being paid.

That presented an elegant and obvious solution. We advised the employer that if they wished to keep the applicant in their employment, given in this case the applicant had been working for them for over two years, consider a pay increase. The employer thought about it, weighed up the value of the applicant to their business given they were increasingly wanting to step back from the day-to-day operation themselves and, in an act of obvious self interest, they agreed to the increase. The pay increase was significant, entirely legitimate and genuine. The job was now skilled based on the dollars per hour, pure and simple.

The client has been being paid the higher amount now for around eight months and the Department has verified it.

What I had not bargained on was the vindictiveness or the stupidity of the immigration department (I am still trying to work out which). They have now threatened to decline the application on the basis that the job is not “genuine” and that the decision to increase the salary to a level that made it skilled represents “a threat to the integrity of the immigration system’. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Despite numerous requests to the officer and her senior line managers to explain why someone already being paid the hourly rate that deems it to be skilled, it is suddenly a ‘threat’ to the system, neither the officer nor her managers will (can?) give an intelligent answer. The best the case officer – so clearly out of her intellectual depth – has come back with is that the salary increase was designed to secure residence and that represents a threat.

Of course the salary increase was designed to satisfy the simple rule. The reality is the applicant has been paid this for over eight months so how could it not be genuine? The rule book says that if you are being paid X dollars per hour then the position is skilled. The employer’s motivation for doing so is not part of the criteria.

Every day we advise employers and migrants on how to meet immigration rules. For example we often tell people who have jobs in Auckland that they will need at some point to get a job outside of Auckland in order to gain additional bonus points to meet the skilled migrant pass mark. Or we advise the employer to apply for ‘accreditation’ to create a work to residence pathway for the migrant.

We recently advised a company to restructure their existing employment agreement with an existing work visa holder so that the applicant’s remuneration changed from salary plus allowances (value $105,000) to a higher straight salary (of $105,000 and losing the allowances) in order to meet the criteria that allowed for 20 bonus points to be granted for higher salary.

I have on numerous occasions advised people to complete qualifications, sometimes in New Zealand, in order to attract higher points.

In none of these cases has any client ever been accused of representing a threat to the integrity of the immigration system by organising their affairs in such a way that in doing so they will secure residence.

To credibly suggest that my client’s employer in giving a pay rise is a threat to the immigration system is a little bit like the tax department accusing someone who legitimately arranges their finances to minimise their tax bill as representing a threat to the integrity of the tax system.

A judge would laugh that right out of their court.

Yet as the managers of the immigration department proclaim not knowing immigration rules and unleashing inexperienced and poorly trained immigration officers onto unsuspecting Visa applicants is the future, this is the kind of thinking that we are now dealing with.

In 30 years it has never been this bad.

The system is thoroughly broken. It is a rudderless ship without a captain, the first mate and senior officers huddled in a cabin removed from the ship’s staff and a significant number of the men and women below decks on the oars are untrained and inexperienced and seem to be pulling the oars in different directions. The ship’s owners just look the other way defending the fact the ship is going round and round in circles and not getting anywhere.

It is thoroughly depressing and I am worried that New Zealand is going to be denied more and more highly skilled migrants unwilling to put up with the risks. People that we so badly need to fill the thousands of vacancies being created each and every month. If, just once, we had a Minister of Immigration that had any idea of how visa processes work, the risks that migrants take to be part of the program, the barriers we put in the way of employers to employ migrants and the low calibre of people sitting in judgement, we might see some change.

I am not holding my breath.

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