A Taumarunui family desperate to stay in New Zealand are considering taking their skills from the regions to Auckland, to meet the Government's salary threshold for a fast-tracked residency application.
Etienne du Plessis and Rolinda Vorster du Plessis moved to Taumarunui from South Africa in March 2019 and have been trying to get residency since March this year.
In 2020, the Government postponed a number of visa programmes and suspended selections for Expressions of Interest within the Skilled Migrant category.
However, they are prioritising Skilled Migrant and Work for Residency applications where the main applicant is paid twice the median wage or higher (currently $54 an hour or $112,320 a year).
Currently on a work visa that expires at the end of the month, and struggling to make headway with the residency process, Etienne and Rolinda are now considering moving their family to Auckland in order to meet the salary bracket - which they were told at the time was $106,080.
"The only way we could get our residency as soon as possible was by earning at least $106,000 a year, which I can get in Auckland - but we don't want to move from a rural area," Etienne said.
Working as a civil engineer and an accountant in Taumarunui - which has a population of around 5000 - Rolinda said it seemed strange they would need to take their skills from the regions to the city in order to be granted residency.
"It's just ridiculous, we're here in a rural area, we've got skills. To have to move from a rural area to Auckland – why?
"And to get an Auckland salary in the rural areas is quite difficult."
Last month the couple took their case to their local MP, National's Ian McKelvie, in a bid to secure residency while staying in the community they loved.
"After that we will have exhausted all avenues that we have, so it will be in the hands of immigration," Rolinda said.
Rangitīkei MP McKelvie said he had provided a letter of recommendation to Immigration NZ on August 2, and had been told there would be a four- to six-week wait for it to be processed.
He believed Etienne and Rolinda would make a "clear-cut case for an exemption".
"You can see why they get frustrated about this because they've effectively made a country their home," he said.
"And particularly these people, one an accountant and one an engineer, we're extremely short of these skills, particularly in rural provincial New Zealand."
He said it was frustrating as a rural MP to see barriers created for people bringing valuable skills to the region.
"It's really important that we encourage people to live there if they want to, and enable them to live there," he said.
"The more skills you have in a rural town, the more you build the community and the more people want to then go and live there."
"And by enabling people to live better lives in places like Taumarunui, it takes the pressure of Auckland and our other big cities."
As of August 2, there were 11,049 migrants in the queue for a skilled residency application.
Immigration NZ border and visa operations general manager Nicola Hogg said demand for the Skilled Migrant Category and Residence from Work category had risen significantly over the past years, leading to longer decision times for applicants.
They acknowledged the impact on applicants and were committed to processing visa applications as quickly as possible.
In February 2020, Immigration NZ formalised a priority allocation for highly paid applicants, including those with an hourly rate equivalent to higher than twice the median wage ($55 an hour, or a salary of $112,320).
"Applications that do not meet the priority criteria are currently being allocated from November 1, 2019," Hogg said.
"An applicant in the non-priority queue can provide updated information to INZ at any time, including evidence of a pay increase, to show that the applicant now meets priority criteria."
People with an application pending were able to request that it be fast-tracked under the Employment Visa Escalation system, she said.
Requests for escalation were considered with regards to compelling personal circumstances, humanitarian factors and matters of national interest.
Since March this year, Rolinda said they had spent hours on the phone to Immigration NZ and paid more than $4000 in immigration fees.
The process of securing documents such as police checks and medical certificates was further complicated by the lockdown in their home country of South Africa.
"Each application you have to pay a certain amount, so the last three months we've paid $4250 – really it's a lot of savings just to pay to immigration," Rolinda said.
The couple have two young children, including one they are hoping to send to Primary School in Taumarunui next year.
"Markus is going to primary school next year and he's made so many friends, we don't really want to put that off," she said.
"We don't want to move out of the town, it's a beautiful town and we love it."
The family loved the country they had emigrated to, but the frustration of the residency process was testing their commitment.
"Otherwise we love New Zealand, we really don't want to leave this country," Rolinda said.
"But if New Zealand is not going to engage we're going to have to look for something else.
"We don't want to, it's a beautiful country."