Samoans and Pacific Islanders wanting to gain permanent residence through an annual immigration quota system will have to face tougher tests - including a minimum income threshold.
The threshold is being set at the level of the unemployment benefit plus the accommodation supplement, and will be adjusted annually to reflect the cost of living.
Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said these were part of a plan to save $40 million in welfare benefits and attract more self-sufficient migrants.
But a Pacific community leader said the plan could backfire as many who came under the family and quota schemes supported working Pacific families who cannot afford to pay for childcare.
"Often Pacific people bring in family members to help working parents to give a better life for the children," said Auckland Tongan Advisory Council president Melino Maka. "If we didn't have that, many of these working Pacific people could truly end up being on the dole."
Mr Maka said the Pacific community had made a huge contribution to New Zealand over the years and it was "insulting" for the Government to imply it was a drain on welfare.
The Samoan quota started in 1970 as part of the 1962 Treaty of Friendship between New Zealand and Samoa, and the Pacific Access Category in 2002 to provide a similar avenue for citizens of Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Each year, 1100 Samoans, 250 Tongans, 75 Tuvaluans and 75 from Kiribati are selected by ballot.
The inclusion of the minimum income level, listed in a briefing paper to the Immigration Minister, follows changes to the parent category, which would now give preference to the wealthy and make it harder for those on low income.
Labour MP Su'a William Sio said the minimum income requirements "adds another stumbling block" in filling the Samoan and Pacific quota categories, and wrongly stereotypes Pacific people as being "poor, unskilled, welfare bludgers".
"Many will feel that moving the goalpost ... undervalues the NZ-Pacific relationships especially with countries such as Samoa," Mr Sio said.
Mr Guy said the changes were aimed at having migrants being able to support themselves and their children.
"We make no apologies for expecting migrants to New Zealand to be self-sufficient rather than relying on the taxpayer," Mr Guy said. "We have a close relationship with Samoa and the Pacific Islands. This is why we consult with them over changes, and why we have these special categories that other countries don't enjoy."
Mr Guy said having a minimum income requirement is not new as there was a required level of $31,200 a year for a family with dependent children to qualify under the two special categories.
A Samoan family who came here under the ballot system said the new rules would have made it much more difficult. Tutonu and Kimatatala Wright migrated with their two young children in 2004.
"We decided to move after my wife was offered a job with the Department of Corrections at Waikeria Prison," said Mr Wright.
"It's really hard to find a job if you're not living in the country. We were lucky because the Corrections Department came to Samoa to do the immigration checks before we came over, and even then it took my wife several tries in the ballot." Mrs Wright worked for the Samoa Commercial Bank and Mr Wright was an accountant.
- additional reporting Teuila Fuatai