Associate Immigration Minister Poto Williams's refusal to intervene for a couple who have been fighting to stay in New Zealand for four years was last week described by Northland MP Matt King as "gutting".
"A petition with more than 3000 signatures in support of Peter and Lina Jia's plea to stay has been been ignored," King said. "The community has been behind Peter and Lina Jia the whole way. This is a perfect opportunity for the Minister to use her discretion."
The couple, Christians with a 10-year-old daughter, Cici, feared that they would be persecuted if forced to return to China.
"Peter and Lina want the best future for their young daughter, and they see that being in New Zealand," he said. "They help their son Jerry, a New Zealand resident, with his thriving strawberry business at Waimate North. They are the sort of people we want in New Zealand. Community-focused small business owners who contribute to our regional economies are valuable. This is not the sort of treatment these well-loved members of our community deserve."
Williams had not only declined to intervene, she had notified Immigration's enforcement section.
The couple and their daughter were ordered to leave the country in November, after applying unsuccessfully for asylum on the grounds of religious and economic persecution when they arrived in New Zealand in 2016. They had been sponsored by Jerry who arrived in 2010 with a student visa, and completed a Bachelor of Finance degree at Massey University.
His parents initially lived in Mangonui for a year, then moved to Waimate North, where their son set up his business, growing strawberries, watermelons and soybeans, which they sell at markets and roadside stalls around the Bay of Islands.
During peak season they employ five part-time staff.
The couple's application for refugee and protected person status, lodged on legal advice, was declined in 2016, as was their appeal to the Immigration Protection Tribunal the following year. Subsequent appeals were also unsuccessful, the tribunal rejecting their claim as "lacking credibility," saying it was "not established that the appellants cannot practise Christianity in China".
King appealed to Williams in August, asking that work visas be granted, but she declined to intervene, referring the family to the Immigration compliance operations group for "priority enforcement action".
The family were advised to make immediate arrangements to leave New Zealand, and "strongly encouraged" to depart voluntarily by November 29.
The Bay of Islands community responded with the petition, which Williams also rejected.
Kerikeri Baptist Church pastor Stuart Angus, who launched the petition, said last year that he had known the "hard-working, generous and well-loved family" for four years. They attended his church and hosted regular gatherings in their home for Chinese language speakers from Kerikeri, Paihia, Kawakawa and Kaikohe.
"They are a delightful family, kind and well-loved ... and have become friends and good neighbours to many folks in our community. They are people of integrity, people who have come to New Zealand to seek a new life for themselves," he said.
Jerry Jia said his parents could not specify the reasons they feared persecution, in case they suffered further retribution if they returned home. Appeals filed showed fear of harm from state officials due to religious beliefs and persecution as Christians.
"My parents feel loved by the community, and feel they add value to the local economy. For my sister, she was six when she came here. She is now an English speaker, she can hardly understand Chinese."
King said the couple were genuine, hard-working people.
"All they're asking for is a work visa so they can have time to get their affairs in order. This is a family wanting to stay united, that want to work. They're contributing to society, they have a humanitarian reason, they are loved by the community — they tick all the boxes," he said.
"This is a no-brainer; it's a classic case that the minister's discretion is for. She can and should intervene. But not only did she decline to intervene, she referred them to the immigration compliance operations unit. That's totally over the top."
Williams said it would not be inappropriate to comment on an individual case, while Immigration New Zealand general manager enablement, Stephen Dunstan, said legal reasons prevented any further information.