Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi's 'special powers' to grant, revoke and waive visas during the COVID-19 pandemic will be extended for another two years.
The powers come from the Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill, which expires in May. It's allowed the Immigration Minister to cancel and grant visas, impose new regulations, revoke entries and suspend the ability to make applications.
Former Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway described it in May last year as a "pragmatic solution to practical challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic for migrants in New Zealand and the Government".
Faafoi plans to introduce legislation to maintain those powers until May 2023. It will go through a short select committee process and is expected to pass in May, because Labour holds the vast majority in Parliament.
The Immigration Minister's announcement suffered a wee typo, with the press release headlined: "Covid-19 imgration powers to be extended."
Faafoi said in the statement: "Over the past year, we have had to make rapid decisions to vary visa conditions, extend expiry dates, and waive some application requirements across entire visa categories."
He added: "These decisions have provided more flexibility and certainty to visa holders and employers in New Zealand, and made more migrants available for industries facing labour shortages in a time when New Zealand's COVID-19 health response needed our borders to be closed."
The special powers have been used 18 times since it was introduced, including:
- The extension of resident visas by 12 months for those stuck overseas, who had not been able to travel or return to New Zealand before the travel conditions on their visas expired.
- The extension of employer-assisted work visas for people who already had a job in New Zealand, as well as their partners and dependent children.
- The Government agreed to temporarily waive a rule which meant visitor visa holders could only be in New Zealand for nine months out of an 18 month period.
- The Government provided 5600 offshore resident visa holders more time to come to New Zealand and activate their visas.
- The Government extended 7800 working holiday visas and eased conditions to allow holders to work in industries like horticulture.
The immigration changes have been unprecedented, reflecting the 1-in-100 year pandemic. The Government responded by shutting the border to all but returning New Zealanders, except for special exemptions by approval.
The Government is now more than $100 billion in debt compared to $59.7 billion before the pandemic began, and more than 127,000 people have been through managed isolation and quarantine since March 2020.
The system has led to tragic stories of families being split from their loved ones and questions around who should be able to get emergency allocations, from The Wiggles to a Green MP.
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash says it is unlikely New Zealand will see any overseas tourists in 2021, with the borders more likely to open in 2022 - sad news for tourist hotspots like Queenstown, which is expected to be hit with a 24.8 percent drop in GDP.
But the restrictions have also kept us safe, with New Zealand's response ranked as the best in the world by the Loy Institute's COVID Performance Index. Out of more than 2.8 million COVID-related deaths worldwide, 26 were in New Zealand.
Faafoi says with the Government making progress on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and the date of quarantine-free travel with Australia set to be announced next week, there is hope on the horizon.
"We continue to prepare for the eventual safe re-opening of our borders. But we know that COVID-19 is still widespread overseas, and it will take time for other countries to get the virus and its variants under control."
He said the extension of special immigration powers to 2023 "ensures our immigration system can continue to be responsive and flexible, if needed, over the next couple of years".