Pragmatic changes to Immigration Act to respond to COVID-19 passed

Parliament has today passed legislation to ensure that the Government can respond quickly, appropriately and efficiently to immigration issues arising from the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill 2020 allows us to amend the Act so we have the necessary flexibility and efficiency to address the unprecedented challenge of managing large numbers of migrants who are practically unable to leave New Zealand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or who live in New Zealand but are offshore and are facing difficulty returning,” says Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway.

“I am pleased that submitters on the Bill overwhelmingly supported its policy intent.”

“We have made it clearer that we won’t be revoking visas or suspending onshore applications. Any special direction made under the amended Act will not disadvantage visa holders. Further, we have worked hard to ensure that the Act has the appropriate safeguards in place and that it is fit for purpose,” says Iain Lees-Galloway.

The changes to the Act enable the government to amend visa conditions for groups of people and extend visas for groups of people for varying periods of time, for example so that processing of any subsequent visa applications, should people need or want to stay longer, can be staggered. They will also allow for one or more of the prescribed requirements to apply for a visa to be waived for groups of people, while stopping groups of people overseas from making visa applications when it would not be possible for them to use the visa to travel to New Zealand in any event due to border restrictions. These powers are time-limited and will be available for 12 months.

Notes 

The Bill introduces eight time-limited powers (12 months):

  • to impose, vary or cancel conditions for classes of temporary entry class visa holders
  • vary or cancel conditions for classes of resident class visa holders
  • extend the expiry dates of visas for classes of people
  • grant visas to individuals or classes of people in the absence of an application
  • waive any regulatory requirements for certain classes of application (that is, waive any prescribed requirements that people need to fulfil to have their application accepted by INZ for assessment).
  • waive the requirement to obtain a transit visa
  • suspend the ability to make applications for visas or submit Expressions of Interest in applying for visas by classes of people who are offshore
  • revoke the entry permission of people who are deemed to have been granted entry permission.

The Epidemic Response Committee received 11 written submissions and 8 oral submissions. Submitters overwhelmingly supported the policy intent of the Bill.

Changes were made to the Bill to address concerns, including strengthening safeguards so that its powers cannot be used to materially disadvantage visa holders (except where conditions may be imposed to require temporary entry class visa holders to comply with health measures), tightening the connection required to COVID-19, and limiting the power to suspend applications so it can only be used to suspend applications from persons offshore.

Currently there are approximately 350,000 temporary visa holders onshore.

  • Over 200,000 have work visas whose visa conditions may need to be varied as we respond to the effects of COVID-19.
  • Over 70,000 are student visa holders whose visa conditions may need to be relaxed, to enable them to change their course or work extra hours until education providers are able to reopen.
  • Over 56,000 are on visitor visas, who may need to have their expiry date extended if flights out of New Zealand continue to be unavailable.
  • Over 20,000 skilled migrant resident visa holders are onshore (where their residence start date was on or after 27 April 2018).

Between 3 February (when border restrictions started) and 20 April 2020, Immigration New Zealand received over 63,000 offshore applications for temporary visas. Roughly half of those applications were for visitor visas.