Kris Faafoi says the Government is looking for ways to speed up visa processing, the Immigration Minister saying a "perfect storm" is behind recent delays that have left families split apart.
Protesters gathered outside Parliament on Thursday demanding answers. Some told Newshub they hadn't seen family members for more than a year, after arriving in New Zealand before the borders were shut to keep out COVID-19.
One woman said while her newborn son is a resident, having been born here, she can't get her residency sorted out.
"There are delays, certainly with the skilled migrant category," Faafoi told The AM Show on Friday.
"We've been saying for some time demand in that category is well above forecast. Also in terms of simple processing, a lot of the staff at Immigration NZ that would normally do those applications have been taken up with the consideration of border exceptions. We've let 13,000 people into the country since we closed the border to make sure that we keep the economy ticking, so that is going to take some time too.
"The issue with the likes of skilled migrant category applications is they aren't rubber-stamped - they are very involved, and we've got to make sure that everyone ticks all the boxes. So there are delays, we apologise for that. But we've got to make sure we've got capacity to process some of the border exception applications that are coming through."
Asked how much blame could be placed on COVID-19, Faafoi said it was a "perfect storm", and the pandemic has "certainly exacerbated some issues we've had".
"We are looking at ways how we can make those processes faster."
Faafoi took exception to Newshub calling the protest at Parliament - which he addressed - a "faceoff".
"I appreciate their right to come and have their voices heard. We made sure that we did front up to them... we respectfully went there and listened to what they had to say.
"It is very difficult. The year before the borders closed we had around 7 million arrivals into New Zealand - since we've closed the borders, in 14 months we've been able to bring in about 226,000. There aren't many families, communities or sectors that haven't been affected by the border closures, but it is our main weapon at the moment to make sure we can keep COVID out."
Immigration NZ is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which added 534 staff in the year to June 30, 2020, the most recent date for which data is available. The reason given was "increased funding for immigration intelligence, compliance and investigations".
Asked if it was cruel to keep families separated, Faafoi said it was kind not to expose Kiwis to COVID-19, which has killed millions around the world.
"We've always prioritised making sure that we keep New Zealanders safe from COVID, and we have to take pretty extreme measures to do that. We're not alone - the likes of the UK, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan are all doing similar things in terms of restricting those who can come in and out of their country, and that is keeping us all safe."
National MP Erica Stanford told Newshub Faafoi's response on Thursday was "empty rhetoric".
"He is refusing to reunite split migrant families, sort out the residence backlog, or to grant work visas to dependent children of migrant parents while they wait for their families residence applications to be processed."