Talwinder Singh's deportation was effectively cancelled by Covid-19.
The Indian national, 29, had been in New Zealand for nearly six years and was holding a Work to Residence visa when he was served a deportation notice in January for providing a fraudulent Indian driver's licence in a visa application. Talwinder denied the fraud, saying it was an act of revenge by an ex-boss.
He appealed on humanitarian grounds and in May, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal (IPT) overturned his deportation to Covid-stricken India.
Talwinder's story illustrates the often fraught human circumstances behind every deportation notice and for officials, the ethical complexities of deciding on them.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) data shows actual deportations are at their lowest in years, and hundreds of people in the country are at risk of being turned out.
2020, the year of the Covid-19 outbreak, had a marked drop in deportations to 566, just over half the number in pre-Covid 2019.
An estimated 571 people in New Zealand have been served a Deportation Liability Notice or Deportation Order.
In his deportation appeal, Talwinder said his legitimate licence was cancelled by an ex-boss.
He had successfully taken the boss to the Employment Relations Authority in 2019 for making him work without pay and in October the same year, his Indian licence was cancelled. Talwinder claimed the father of the boss was a lawyer in India who had bribed the Punjab state transport agency offices to organise the cancellation.
The tribunal's 15-page decision noted the timing of the ERA proceedings and the licence cancellation supported a "reasonable belief" that Talwinder's ex-boss had anonymously tipped-off INZ about the cancelled licence. It also said there was public interest in encouraging migrant workers to take steps to protect themselves against exploitation.
The tribunal ultimately did not rule on the validity of the licence, but found "exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature which would make it unjust or unduly harsh" to deport Talwinder at this time "to a location in the grip of health, financial and social crises".
The decision drew from extensive media reports about the Covid situation in India, citing "people dying outside hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky".
Cases like Talwinder's present an ethical dilemma for New Zealand, says migrant activist and union leader Dennis Maga, calling it a "balancing act" between treating migrants compassionately and preserving the integrity of the immigration system.
Most migrants understand New Zealand doesn't owe them residency or a living, but hardship in their home countries often means "they will keep on trying to be part of a society that can accept them", said Maga, who is general secretary of First Union.
Many have spent tens of thousands of dollars to come to New Zealand for a better life, and the uncertainty of their residency status weighs on a migrant's mind 24/7, says Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti.
"They've taken up loans, their families are indebted, they can't be seen to return as failures to their home countries."
Desperation has pushed some to seek protection as "Covid refugees", says immigration adviser Tuariki Delamere. INZ has received 58 asylum claims citing a fear of Covid-19 as an element to date, up from 17 in March.
Five have been declined and three withdrawn by applicants, but most are yet to be decided, says Fiona Whiteridge of Refugee and Migrant Services.
"The fear of Covid-19 or any infectious disease on its own will not normally make someone a refugee under international or New Zealand law," she said.
Delamere says Talwinder's case has "massive implications" for these asylum seekers as well as the 571 people - probably more - facing deportation, but immigration lawyers disagree.
"It's only temporary relief because the pandemic is not permanent," says Raj Pardeep Singh of Legal Associates. "If you're an overstayer, please don't depend on this decision."
Talwinder's lawyer Ritvik Roop agrees. "It's not a blanket green light where every appellant invokes Covid and gets their deportation cancelled.
Every deportation appeal has to turn on its own facts, says Simon Laurent, and the Immigration and Protection Tribunal looks at cumulative humanitarian factors to see whether they rise to an "exceptional" level.
Exceptional circumstances that could overturn a deportation include the length of time a person has been in the country, where the nexus of their family is, whether they are in a partnership with a New Zealander or have children who are citizens.
Talwinder is relieved to be able to stay in New Zealand but declined an interview with the Herald, fearing media statements could jeopardise his application for residency, says his lawyer Roop.
That application will once again require proof that his Indian driver's licence was legitimate, to pass the good character test with INZ, say Raj and Laurent.
It's an ordeal that has cast "great uncertainty" over Talwinder's future in New Zealand, Roop says, but he is not giving up.
"His end goal is residency... to build his career and future here."