By Gill Bonnet of RNZ
It appears tourists will benefit from the lifting of border restrictions next year but separated couples and families will not, according to immigration lawyers and advocates.
It comes as the Government is taken to court on Wednesday for how it has handled the issue of overseas partners of New Zealanders during the pandemic.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced last month all fully vaccinated individuals would be able to travel here from 30 April, with the re-opening staged over time.
But Immigration New Zealand's website later said the suspension of visa processing for most people overseas was extended until at least August.
"That's going to mean further delays and we could be looking at well into 2023 until people can get their families into New Zealand," immigration lawyer Nick Mason said.
"I simply don't understand why it wasn't proactively announced. It feels like the positive stuff gets big fanfare and the stuff that might actually affect people's lives is hidden in the detail underneath.
"I did - and I know that other advisors had to - have some very difficult conversations for with clients who said 'Finally I can get my family in in April' when we had to say 'No look, the devil's in the detail and that won't be possible until at least August'."
That's been hard to take, he said, particularly as it seemed tourists not needing visas would be allowed in from April.
"It adds to the frustration - people started to see light at the end of the tunnel, particularly those people who are looking to get family members into New Zealand who are offshore, and there's no comfort that processing will recommence in August. And even if it does recommence there's going to be an awful backlog."
Advocates said the border announcement got split families' hopes up momentarily but they were dashed by the visa processing news and policies that "continue to marginalise, confuse and discriminate".
On Wednesday, two New Zealanders are taking a High Court case against Immigration New Zealand and the Immigration Minister over their suspension of visa processing and lapsing of temporary applications.
Among those awaiting the result are Rotorua teacher Sandeep Gosai, born here and a New Zealand citizen, who married his wife Divyaben in India in January 2020 - she was due to join him soon after.
"But then Covid hit and then ever since then it's just been a real mission to communicate with the Government to get any sort of visa. They've just kept saying that when the borders open, they'll think about a visitor visa. And for a partnership visa, it's been really difficult because we don't meet the living together requirements.
"It's been tough. Having to just video call and text all the time has been tough. And it's been really tough not being able to get on with having a family.
"I'm busy teaching children here in New Zealand but don't have the opportunity to have my own. So that's been quite hard."
The Government had refused to read a letter setting out their case and breaches of international law, he said.
That pointed to inconsistencies in what constitutes truly exceptional cases, exemptions for sports people and even for partners of teachers - as long as those teachers are on temporary visas.
MBIE's immigration policy manager Ruth Isaac said in a statement not all foreign nationals would be able to arrive from April but no decisions had yet been made on how the final phase of border re-opening would happen.
"Reopening will be phased to manage the ongoing need for volume controls on the number of arrivals into New Zealand, to manage health risks, align with any immigration rebalance changes, and to support effective visa processing.
"Ministers are currently working through options for the phasing of visa categories for step three of Reconnecting New Zealand and will make announcements in due course. Until then, the current border settings will remain in place, including the suspension of most offshore temporary visa applications which has been extended until August 2022.
"It's important to note that this suspension can be lifted in whole or in part in line with any decisions made by the government."
Lawyer and Reunite Families NZ advocate Cynthia Garton said migrants were having to cope with the shifting goalposts of apparent good news that quickly soured.
The policy could see tourists from countries mainly in Europe and North America that do not need visas, arriving before those in countries such as India, South Africa and China and including those who are separated from family members in New Zealand.
"It's caused quite a lot of confusion within many of the migrant communities that you see online discussing this issue, because a lot of them expected early 2022 for processing to be really started again, in the hope of reunification in the first half of next year.
"By pushing it out to August, it just creates further uncertainty as to whether these families are actually going to be reunited before the end of next year. It just shifts the goalposts again."
That shift from April to possibly after August makes people worried they might be apart for another Christmas, and it exacerbated existing concerns about overseas partners being able to meet "living together" requirements of proving they are in a stable relationship.
"That issue needs to be dealt with because otherwise it's going to carry on unaddressed. I'm seeing first-hand the ongoing morale within some of these communities that we are supporting and just how hard it is for these people day to day with some sort of uncertainty and really not knowing when the situation is going to change, and I think the court hearing has given them a wee bit of hope.
"I think the announcement the other day where August was being referenced, again, you saw the community has kind of gone into panic.
"It's that human impact that these things are having on people and it's just really unfair, in my view."