By Nita Blake-Persen of RNZ
An Auckland mother whose partner has been waiting nearly a year for a visa to meet their baby is appalled a nanny for an America's Cup team has been granted a visa ahead of her child's father.
Under Covid-19 level 1 restrictions, more than 16,500 requests have been made to Immigration NZ for border exemptions for people entering New Zealand. Of those, about 2600 have been approved.
Many of those people have been linked to the film industry or America's Cup, and it is adding to the frustrations of many New Zealand families who are separated by the border closures.
For Aucklander Ruth McDowall, the separation has been a long one.
A photo journalist in West Africa for the past 10 years, she returned from Ghana last July for the birth of her first child Emmanuella.
But Teddy - her partner of five years and Emmanuella's father - has been repeatedly denied a visa to join her and their child in New Zealand.
It has been far from the homecoming she pictured. Living on Auckland's west coast, Ruth and Emmanuella enjoy time at the beach but it's always bittersweet, wishing the whole family could be together there, she told Checkpoint.
"It was really exciting when we found out we'd be having a baby, and each month we'd go to the clinic together in Accra and see the scan and watch her grow. We decided it was best for me to come back to New Zealand and give birth, and I had to say goodbye to Teddy. It was really hard."
Teddy is from Ghana and is a furniture designer there. At first the couple applied to Immigration NZ for a partnership work visa but that was denied.
They have since applied for a partnership visitor visa. That process has now been drawn out for close to 10 months.
"They think he's not bona fide, they think he is potentially using me for a visa. I lived in northern Nigeria for six years in amongst Boko Haram insurgency, I'm a very tough person, I covered those attacks and everything. And what we're going through right now, the stress level is up there, and beyond," she said.
Through their time waiting for visa approval, Teddy missed many milestones since Emmanuella was born. When Checkpoint visited, it was Teddy's birthday, and the family was celebrating over the phone.
He said he tried to focus on the positive, but it was hard.
"Watching your baby be born and then growing, she doesn't even have the real connection, just the phone and you and daughter talking. So even if I meet her in person it's going to be strange… So it's really hard," he said.
For Ruth, their situation is heart-breaking.
"Why is my daughter coming up to nine months old and she's never met her father, when we've been in a loving and committed relationship for nearly six years?"
Border closures from Covid-19 made things even worse. The couple applied for exemptions under humanitarian grounds, but that has not worked either.
While Checkpoint visited, Ruth received an email from Immigration NZ denying that application.
"There is no right of reply to this decision, do not reply to this email," the email said.
Seeing high-paying movie executives and a nanny for an America's Cup team get the green light to come to New Zealand has been salt in the wound for her.
"When you that see on the TV, that makes you feel like you're not valuable. I think a core value of New Zealand as a country and something that makes us great is families. Of course the economy is important, but that can't be the be all and end all."
Ruth said she could not prove the declines and delays on Teddy's visa applications were due to his race, but she strongly suspected it played a part.
"Teddy is black, he's an African, so it's always going to be difficult for him because of where he was born," Ruth said.
"People can't help where they were born. You can't help what colour your skin is, if you were born white or you were born black.
"Our family matters, his life matters, black fathers matter. We should be allowed to be a family together."
Immigration NZ said in a statement that Teddy's application for a visa on humanitarian grounds "did not meet the high threshold required".
Regarding his second visa application as a partner of a New Zealand citizen, he was denied as he was not travelling with his New Zealand partner.
However, the Government announced last week that partners of New Zealand citizens and residents with relationship-based visas no longer have to travel together to get a border exception.
Meanwhile, a Facebook group with New Zealanders facing similar struggles as Ruth and Teddy has hundreds of members.
"There's more than 600 members and we've all been separated from our families, and I think you could count on your hand how many people have been given an exemption."
Immigration New Zealand said the application process for Teddy's visa was paused while its offices were closed over lockdown, because it was limited to processing applications relating to the Covid-19 response.
Processing has now resumed, but it says applications for people in New Zealand are prioritised over those where the applicant is offshore.
Ruth told Checkpoint the Government's claims that families could now be reunited were not the reality, and flew in the face of calls for kindness.
"You can say in words 'be kind', but kindness is an action. It's good to be kind in action, and in our situation, that's a father, a mother and a baby together, on the couch here, safe."