We need fairer immigration policy but it won't be easy

Áine Kelly-Costello with her family.
Áine Kelly-Costello with her family. Photo credit: Supplied.

"Áine, there's something we haven't told you."

I was talking to my parents over dinner about my dissertation research, when I'd discovered some pretty gnarly 19th century Kiwi immigration laws.

It turns out New Zealand's current immigration policy meant my ability, as an 11-year-old, to remain in New Zealand was little more than a hard-won fluke.

I asked my parents why they'd hid this fact from me for eleven whole years.

"You were just a child," my mother told me.

"How could I tell you that your country didn't want you anymore because Immigration thought you were too expensive?"

I'm blind, and if one is a totally blind school student, one is entitled to receive specialist support from a sought-after funding stream called the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS).

We'd been in New Zealand for almost three years at this point.

After compiling numerous letters of support, Immigration NZ had approved the medical waiver which allowed me to be here on a student visa, and to get ORS funding while that visa lasted.

But under current Immigration New Zealand policy, if it is "relatively probable" that you will receive ORS funding, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to be granted New Zealand residency, even if your other family members are approved.

Shortly after my father revealed to his employer that he would be leaving the country if the decision was not reversed, Immigration NZ gave in, at the last moment before my family's work and student visas expired.

Otherwise, we would have had to move, perhaps back to Canada where we had emigrated from three years earlier.

Over a decade later, my family are all New Zealand citizens.

My father, Mark Costello, is a well-respected Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Auckland and my mother has raised two children and contributed to various parent and writing groups in the community.

I have gained excellent academic grades at University, actively advocated for the disability community and even swum for New Zealand in the Paralympics.

My immigration case is not an isolated incident.

Consider the Suhinthan family last year.

All family members except their daughter Bumikka, who has Downs Syndrome, were granted visas and Bumikka's was denied for precisely this reason.

Equally, spare a thought for the dilemma of the Leeman family, whose stepson Peter, who is autistic, was denied residency again due to this familiar pattern.

Immigration policy states any other family who are New Zealand residents constitute one of several factors which should be taken into account when deciding whether to grant the necessary medical waiver.

Clearly however, family members are not always considered the decisive factor.

Mr Leeman argues that such a policy is a reflection on the type of society we tolerate.

"Yes," he wrote for the Guardian, "the cost of caring for the 1% of children with ASD has to be taken on by the entire population."

But is that not the foundation of a civilised society?"

The ORS quandary is one immigration hurdle that most immigrating adults deemed to be in sufficiently good health don't have to climb over.

But what if, instead of "imposing significant costs or demands" on New Zealand's Special Education services, you're deemed to pose those costs to health services instead?

This is the case for Juliana Carvalho, a Brazilian recruitment consultant who has been working in New Zealand on work visas since 2013.

She met all criteria to be accepted under the Skilled Migrant residency category, though due to being paraplegic as a result of Lupins disease, needed to apply for a medical waiver on health grounds.

Ms Carvalho had a good job and career prospects, she contributed to the community, and her mother, brother and a sister were already permanent residents in New Zealand.

She was nonetheless still denied a medical waiver, and thus denied residency.

She appealed to the Immigration Protection tribunal, who ordered INZ to reassess its decision.

But the reassessment also came back negative, leaving one to question what power the Tribunal really wields.

Over five years after receiving her first work visa, Ms Carvalho has still been unable to obtain residency, which leaves her living year to year.

"It's a lot of emotional and financial effort," she told me.

"If you have a health issue ... you already have to keep yourself well and juggle that with your full-time job. So I don't think it's fair to have another barrier."

Speaking of disability-related barriers, there are also certain criteria barring potential New Zealand residents from getting a medical waiver altogether, unless they manage to win in an appeal.

One of those no-go criteria reads: "has a physical, intellectual, cognitive and/or sensory incapacity that requires full-time care, including care in the community."

Specialist in immigration law Simon Laurent says it's "discriminatory" and "unfair" that people in this category have lost the ability to argue "that their apparent incapacity is not so much incapacity as they [Immigration NZ officers] think."

That said, Mr Laurent believes that the medical waiver process itself, without the exclusion criteria, is justified, on the basis that coming up with a better alternative is a challenge.

"Of course there's always this talk about shortage of access to health services for New Zealanders, never mind people overseas...

"The [immigration] policy is written in the context of policy imperatives for the government, and one of those is the need to balance the need to bring people in and secure the welfare of the country itself and especially medical services."

Immigration New Zealand assistant General Manager Peter Elms describes current health-related policy as "appropriate," on those same balancing grounds.

"There are currently no planned changes to immigration health policy settings," he said.

"However, INZ does monitor the impacts of its policies to ensure the intended objectives are met and INZ does undertake periodic immigration health policy reviews."

Mr Laurent and Immigration New Zealand do raise a valid point about the need to ensure Government provides adequate education and health service funding for Kiwis.

Budget allocations don't change overnight and we can't solve immigration discrimination with one single measure or change.

But we can put humanity first in designing, reviewing and applying immigration policy.

We can keep families together, saving parents the dilemma of how to tell their child they're too expensive.

And we can remember that diversity of all types, including the contributions and perspectives of disabled people, is valuable to our society and country.


Áine Kelly-Costello is a digital journalist interning with Newshub.