Nearly 13,000 key residence visa applications are among the mountains of paper-only files at Immigration New Zealand for which processing is at a virtual stand-still in the current upper alert levels in Auckland.
Some 6,109 Skilled Migrant Category residence visas and 6,765 Residence from Work residence visas are among the more than 20,000 paper-based visa applications held for processing by the department (all applicants are currently in New Zealand on another visa).
Together the two visa types constitute the vast majority of residency visa applications to New Zealand and they are held and processed exclusively at Immigration's Manukau Office in Auckland. None can be accessed by case officers who are off-site.
The processing of both visa categories was totally suspended during Auckland's five-week-long level 4 lockdown, and at level 3 Immigration said only a "small" and "fluctuating" number of staff would be able to return to the office to resume some work.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has some 566 visa processing staff in the country. 244 are in Auckland, and only up to a third of that number are able work in the office at alert level 3, while up to 50 per cent can work in the office at alert level 2.
Nicola Hogg, general manager border and visa operations at the department, confirmed that immigration staff are not able to access paper applications while working from home. And it appears that scanning paper applications has not been done to solve the problem.
"While scanning is an option, it is most appropriate for low complexity application types (eg. some temporary visas)," Hogg said in response to the Herald's written questions.
Foreigners on work visas who wish to settle in New Zealand require residency to achieve many measures of permanence, including: to leave the country and return, purchase a house, move easily between employers, and send dependent children to tertiary education without paying international fees.
Anecdotally it is becoming clear that some skilled workers living and working in New Zealand on temporary visas are becoming so frustrated with the country's throttled path to residency that they are upping stakes and leaving.
Simon Wallace, chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association, called INZ's unpreparedness for lockdown a "ridiculous situation".
"My members [mainly old-age homes] have been coming to me in huge frustration that there has been no contingency plan for this," he said.
Wallace said he has spoken to officials at INZ about stalled residency applications but no resolution has been offered as yet.
He said his sector is short 1,000 nurses, and of the current workforce in the sector approximately 50 per cent of nurses and some 25 per cent of caregivers are on migrant visas hoping to obtain residency.
"These people want certainty. They want to know that when Covid is over they aren't just going to be sent home," he said.
Before the current lockdown New Zealand was suffering a severe skills shortage. Some very limited Government efforts have been made to ease the route of critical workers into the country through the choked MIQ system at the border. However, the numbers are so small that New Zealand is likely losing more exasperated skilled workers who are already here, than it is gaining through special border exemptions.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi told the Herald that, "in response to previous lockdowns, INZ has enabled a number of application processes to be dealt with electronically, including reconsideration requests and the ability to apply for a Migrant Exploitation visa."
Such applications, however, constitute a very small proportion of Immigration cases.
Faafoi also said that more immigration services are being moved online: "[a] focus on new technology will continue with the introduction of improvements to applying for visas online and the introduction of the new Accredited Employer Work Visa policy next year."
Immigration consultant Katy Armstrong called INZ's level of unpreparedness for lockdown "unbelievable" and the promise of more online applications "already painfully delayed".
"Who else, in business, this far into a pandemic, says 'oh, er, we're in lockdown, we can't really do much from home?'"
Armstrong said she's had "a resounding silence" from the immigration case officers she's attempted to obtain updates from.
"It was bad before, but since the lockdown it's been much worse," she said.
She also noted that immigration consultants scan all of their clients' paper applications, including those for residency, because regulations require them to store records for seven years.
"I frankly fail to see why Immigration can't do it," she said.
Lockdown is only the latest impediment to gaining residency
Even before the latest lockdown, processing times for residency applications were already chronically long, and the delay appeared to be at its worst ever.
On a key measure, Skilled Migrant Residence visas were taking some 24 months to complete this year, compared to six months in 2016. Residence from Work visas were taking nine months to complete this year, compared to four months in 2016 (the measure is for 75 per cent of applications completed in the three months to August 1).
In addition, the Skilled Migrant Category route to residency is now suspended indefinitely.
Prior to the border closure in March, 2020, applicants who met a points threshold (160 for attributes like job qualifications and English proficiency) made what's called an "expression of interest" (EOI) to Immigration: an online process to signal they'd like to apply for residence.
That group of applicants constituted what was known as "the pool", from which Immigration officials invited qualified applicants to formally apply for residence.
However, Immigration has invited no new applications from the pool since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Currently, it is simply working its way through applications that were invited more than 18-months ago.
When the process was suspended the pool contained fewer than 500 EOIs. Immigration New Zealand figures show that, as of mid-September, there are now over 13,000 EOIs. Of those, 11,610 are from applicants already living and working in New Zealand.
The spanner in the works is not Covid-19, but rather the Government's immigration "reset". It has announced a desire to reform the immigration system and reduce the number of low-skilled migrants but, as yet, it has released no plan for doing so. Meanwhile, a logjam of applicants is building in the current system.
Faafoi provided no update on when he will announce details of his promised "reset".