A one-off residence pathway visa will be offered to the roughly 165,000 migrant workers and their families stranded here through the pandemic.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi made the long-awaited announcement this morning, which he said would provide those migrants and their families and New Zealand businesses certainty so they could plan into the future.
"The changes give migrants certainty about their future here, allowing them to continue putting down roots, and will help reunite many families who were separated by the border restrictions that prevent Covid-19 entering the community.
"We acknowledge the uncertainty and difficulties Covid-19 and our closed borders have caused our migrant community.
"We have been carefully working through this residence option to offer certainty they need to truly make New Zealand their home."
The one-off resident visa would create a residence pathway for about 165,000 migrant workers and their families, including more than 5000 health and aged-care workers, about 9000 primary industry workers, and more than 800 teachers.
There are also around 15,000 construction and 12,000 manufacturing workers on relevant visa types, some of whom will be eligible for the one-off pathway.
It would include a streamlined application process requiring health, police and security criteria to be met and majority of applications would be granted within a year of the category opening.
"These people have all played an important role in keeping our country moving over the last 18 months," Faafoi said.
"The 2021 Resident Visa will also help us attract and retain the skills that our businesses need to help relieve labour pressures caused by Covid-19.
"This is something employers have asked for and we are delivering.
"Employers will now have the opportunity to retain their settled and skilled migrant workers, reflecting the critical part they play in our economy, essential workforce and communities."
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.
Many of those who came here on work visas but were left stranded in limbo have been leaving the country, including critical care nurses and doctors.
The one-off residency visa pathway was mistakenly published on Immigration New Zealand's website on Wednesday, fuelling speculation an announcement was imminent.
National Party immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford said the policy appeared similar to her party's policy to grant a "Covid contribution visa" pathway.
"It is a really great thing, just a year too late."
She said the minister had no choice but to offer residency to all of those stuck here, which was part of National's own broader policy.
"The minister has backed himself into a corner with the last three years of inaction with these massive queues. There really is no option but to fast-track those applications and streamline and open up the expressions on interest process quickly.
"People on essential work visas are leaving in droves for places like Canada that offer pathways to residency, whereas there has been no certainty here."
Immigration advisor Ben De'Ath of the Regions Immigration Law & Recruitment primarily works with farming communities struggling with workers leaving for places like Canada that offered residency, and said the announcement had been a "long time coming".
The catalyst for change was likely seeing "the exodus of nurses during a pandemic", he said.
"It will be absolutely life-changing, and well overdue."
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.
To be eligible, the main applicant must have been in New Zealand today, September 29, 2021 and must hold or have applied for (and subsequently be granted) one of the eligible work visas.
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.
The visa will also be available for those who enter New Zealand as critical workers, and their families, for roles six months or longer until July 31, 2022.
Visa holders can also include their partners and dependents in their application.
This new visa was part of "rebalancing the immigration system for those who can come to work, study and live in New Zealand once our borders re-open", Faafoi said.
"This initiative addresses that immediate issue while work on the immigration rebalance looks longer term at preparing for the eventual reopening of New Zealand's borders.
"But our message to industries and employers remains clear; they need to look for ways to build resilient workforces and to attract, train and retain local workers and reduce their reliance on low-skilled migrant labour."
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.