A new policy to allow 165,000 critical workers and their families a pathway to residency has been hailed as the "most significant" change to immigration in decades.
It will see those migrants stranded here through the pandemic now eligible for a one-off fast-track residence pathway visa.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said their aim was to process 80 per cent of those within a year, and he would be pulling out all stops to make sure it happened as fast as possible.
It has been welcomed broadly across the board, with the main criticism being that it had taken far too long.
Faafoi's announcement followed dozens of stories of critical migrant workers and their families leaving the country, fed up living with no certain future over gaining residency.
There were also heartbreaking stories of migrant families split when the borders closed to them at the start of the pandemic.
Today the Herald spoke to a Wellington chef from India who hadn't seen her daughter in three years, but was given hope that would change soon by the new policy.
It could also see the return of a young migrant GP who left Ōtaki, and his more than 1300 patients, because of the stalled residency process.
Faafoi has been under pressure for months after the Government stopped processing residency applications in March last year, and then put a freeze on expressions of interest this year.
There are over 30,000 applications in the residency queue, and another 11,400 expressions of interest ahead of that, including about 26,000 workers and their families.
This week the New Zealand Nurses Union wrote to the minister concerned about an "exodus at a time when we are facing a crucial shortage of nursing professionals".
An estimated 5000 of those eligible for the new visa were health and aged care workers, and NZNO Industrial Services Manager Glenda Alexander said policy would be good news for them and a step towards retaining the current nursing workforce.
However, while immigration was an important short-term solution, they agreed with Faafoi employers must also find ways to build their workforces by attracting and retaining local workers.
First Union general secretary Dennis Maga said the policy would bring the long period of uncertainty for many migrants and their families to an end.
"We also believe this decision will substantially reduce the risk of migrant worker exploitation, as workers will now have a real pathway to residency and better access to decent work."
Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O'Riley said it was the "most significant immigration change in decades".
Faafoi had "copped a fair amount of flak in the past few months", but the announcement showed he'd listened, O'Riley said.
"This response will go some way to easing the pressures businesses continue to face in sourcing skilled and willing people to fill what we have called the skills chasm in New Zealand workplaces."
Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said it would be "welcome relief" to employers across the country who had been fighting to retain international workers, many of whom had already left with better opportunities offshore.
"It is important for New Zealand to signal that we welcome and value those who choose to contribute to New Zealand, if we are to remain globally competitive and continue to attract the best international skills and talent, and this is a positive step in that direction."
The policy received broad parliamentary support, albeit with the caveat it should have come sooner.
Green Party immigration spokesman Ricardo Menéndez March said they were pleased to see broad pathways to residency announced, which they had promoted in a policy launched in May.
The party would continue pushing for more fairness for disabled people, better planning to avoid future backlogs, and an amnesty for people who had overstayed their visas.
National Party immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford said the policy appeared similar to her party's policy to grant a "Covid contribution visa" pathway announced in August.
She questioned why it had taken the minister so long, and urged the Government to increase staffing to ensure there were no delays and to ensure split migrant families were prioritised.
Faafoi today defended the time it had taken, saying it was not a "quick decision" and a lot of work had been needed.
"It's a big piece of policy work, probably one of the biggest ones in history."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the move was the "most significant announcement in immigration policy in recent history".
"This will be a welcome move for those, for employers, and for the team of five million as a whole."
The visas will be processed in two tranches.
Faafoi said the first, to be processed from December 1, included those already in the residency application queue, and those with dependents aged over 17.
The latter was in recognition of their inability to access tertiary education.
Eligible people in that group were already being approached.
The second tranche would open up from March next year.
Faafoi said they expected 80 per cent of applications to be granted within a year under a streamlined application process that still required health, police and security criteria to be met and included an online process opening on Thursday, rather than the previous paper-based process.
Asked if the Government needed to apologise to those left in limbo over the past 18 months, Faafoi said they had "acknowledged the challenges people have been through".
"We've also acknowledged that we've just opened up a one-off residency pathway for 165,000 people who are currently here, and that's not a decision that we make lightly.
"It is something that we've been concerned about for some time, and I think eventually delivered to them what they really extremely wanted."
New one-off residency visa
The visa will be available to most work-related visa holders, including Essential Skills, Work to Residence, and Post Study Work visas and their immediate family members.
The main applicant must have been in New Zealand on September 29, 2021, and must hold or have applied for (and subsequently be granted) one of the eligible work visas.
But the visa will also be available for those entering New Zealand as critical workers, and their families, for roles six months or longer until July 31 next year.
They must also meet one of the following criteria: lived in New Zealand for three or more years; earn above the median wage ($27 per hour or more); work in a role on the Long Term Skill Shortage List; hold occupational registration and work in the health or education sector; work in personal care or other critical health worker roles; or work in a specified role in the primary industries.
Visa holders can also include their partners and dependents in their application.
Applications for the 2021 Resident Visa will open in two phases; on December 1, 2021, and March 1, 2022.
Immigration New Zealand will contact visa holders who are eligible to apply.