Auckland's two recent lockdowns and the limitations of working from home have been blamed for a stalled residence visa queue.
The oldest applications date back to July 2019, and migrants tracking the skilled migrant (SMC) queue for applicants now treated as 'non-priority' say it has only moved one day in four weeks.
There are fears among applicants - and those waiting to submit an expression of interest after the process was suspended last year - that the delays signal a slowing-down ahead of a review announced by Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi last month.
But Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it was making "steady and regular" progress in the non-priority queue which includes skilled workers who earn less than $106,080 a year or whose job does not need occupational registration.
It was on track to approve its target of between 50,000 and 60,000 residence applications in the 18 months to June, it said.
"INZ continues to regularly allocate non-priority applications for Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) resident visas," an INZ spokesperson said.
"However, the two recent COVID-19 lockdowns of Auckland in the past month significantly disrupted normal business operations at INZ's Manukau office, which processes Skilled Migrant Category visa applications.
"INZ's role is to process residence applications in line with the New Zealand Residence Programme (NZRP), which is set by the government, and not in response to the number of residence applications received."
Staff at Manukau were able to work from home during the lockdowns, he said, but paper-based application files could not be taken out of offices.
Applications in the priority queue were being allocated to a case officer within two weeks of an application being put in that queue, he added, although no information was provided on how far the non-priority queue had moved last month.
"For the calendar year to date, 64 percent of all Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) resident visa and Residence from Work (RfW) visa applications allocated are from the non-priority onshore queue," said a spokesperson.
"A total of 1304 files have been allocated for processing to date in 2021."
A total of 11,785 onshore SMC applications (25,908 people) are waiting to be allocated a case officer, but that does not include the number of undecided offshore applications, which are not being processed under COVID-19 restrictions.