The Immigration Recalibration: what's changed (and what hasn't) for international tauira

The Immigration Recalibration: what's changed (and what hasn't) for international tauira

From this month, international tauira (students) can once again move to Aotearoa to study, work, and host the best parties on campus. But with recent changes to immigration policies making it harder to stay after graduating, and with tough barriers for anyone with health needs, will the long flight to our shores still be worth it for international students?

Over the last two years, international immigration to Aotearoa slowed to a standstill. As we stumble into the second half of 2022, the third year of the pandemic, borders continue to reopen globally and the government has taken the opportunity to make a number of changes to our immigration and visa systems. These changes aim to help fill a number of critical worker shortages in specific areas, but advocates say they also rebalance immigration in favour of wealthier migrants, making an already unfair system even more so.

One major change is for a ‘straight to residence’ fast-track pathway for workers in occupations on a “green list” (as Kris Faafoi, the former immigration minister, described it in May), which are mostly doctors, engineers, and IT professionals. From next month, workers entering the country for these occupations can immediately apply for residency. A ‘work to residence’ visa has also been announced, covering many other healthcare workers on lower salaries, like nurses, as well as a shortlist of other occupations including teachers, electricians and plumbers. Tauiwi (migrants) on this list will be able to apply for residency after just two years (as opposed to the usual five years other workers have to wait).

There are minimum salary requirements for workers on these visas, which critics have said are unfair. Midwives union co-leader Jill Ovens described it as “a completely sexist model” that doctors got fast-tracked while nurses did not, given the historic gender imbalance in these fields. The Greens and National have both criticised the changes, too. 

The fees for many visa applications increased dramatically this month too, with the 
Skilled Migrant Category rising 48% from $3310 to $4890, and the Residence from Work Category rising 136% from $1800 to $4240 as of July 31st.

The immigration changes also mean that tauiwi will no longer be automatically able to work in Aotearoa if they arrive with a partner on a work visa, and from December they will need to apply for an accredited employer work visa or a visitor visa. Concerns have been raised by migrant worker advocates that this would mean more migrant families will have to rely on one source of income, or work under the table and face potential exploitation. 

Greens spokesperson for immigration Ricardo Menéndez March told Critic Te Ārohi that the Government should “prioritise setting pathways to residency for these other workers before trying to rush and attract multimillionaires into the country”, referring to the investor visas that many, including Ricardo, have described as a way for the wealthy to “purchase residency” in Aotearoa. Despite reforms to the investor visa categories last month, Ricardo believes the Government is still “essentially maintaining its open-door policy for the super wealthy, even as it makes it harder and harder for essential workers on low wages to come to New Zealand to put down roots.”

International tauira go through a different haerenga (journey) to other migrants to Aotearoa, but face some of the same raru (problems), as well as some unique ones. Studying as an international tauira in Aotearoa can be prohibitively expensive, as many of the country’s tertiary institutions rely on international fees to prop up their budgets. It can be hard enough, being away from home in a new country with strange birds and pies full of mince, but getting fucked around with visas and bureaucratic hoops to jump through certainly doesn’t make things easier. 

Many international tauira, including two of our staff here at Critic Te Ārohi, remained in the country throughout the pandemic - but mostly there has been only a trickle of new arrivals in the past few years. After months of uncertainty, the Government announced in February that 5,000 international tauira would be allowed in from April. 2,150 of these spots were for universities and polytechs, while the rest were for secondary schools, private training schools, and English language centres.

In May, the Government then announced that the borders would be open once again to international tauira anywhere in the world from July 31st. Education New Zealand Manapou ki te Ao is a government agency tasked with promoting our universities to the rest of the world, and has been flying to conferences across the globe to make their case. They’ve been trying to “catch up” with Australia, the UK, and Canada, as Education Minister Chris Hipkins shared in a kōrero in June. 

Canada, however, has recently made moves to expand immigration pathways for international tauira to get permanent residence. On the other hand, Aotearoa has made a number of changes that limit the ability of international tauira to stay in the country after they graduate.

Students in non-degree level courses (eg. English language schools) can no longer work in Aotearoa after graduating, unless they apply for a visa. Undergraduate tauira can now only work in Aotearoa, after graduating, for the same amount of time they spent studying here. Hipkins argued in May that some courses acted as a “backdoor to residency”, a comment the International Students Association took issue with at the time. 

Ricardo Menéndez March agrees that there are “genuine issues with the international education sector” but “the way to progress is not to curtail the working rights and the pathways to residencies for students and rather to better regulate institutions and to set better pastoral care programs for international students coming in.”

At Otago Uni international fees are, in many cases, more than five times domestic fees, and Ricardo points out that on top of this the Government generally requires tauira prove they have $20,000 in funds for each year of study. “The message that we are sending is that we want to be attracting wealthy students, as opposed to recognizing that there is a role that we can play to support global education.”

“Several postgraduate tauira effectively, after spending years often doing world-leading research, have no pathway to stay in the country. And it seems to me like we would want to offer pathways for these people to remain since they are massively contributing to building research and knowledge in this country. And it's a shame that a lot of these students have no other choice than to leave the country because there's no pathway for them to remain.” Ricardo told Critic Te Ārohi in an interview.

Roughly 15% of the Uni’s revenue in 2019 was from international student fees, and while the aforementioned changes to student visas may indicate a shift in this balance, Ricardo believes “we can both have a well-funded tertiary education system and ensure that we are providing pathways and support for international students coming in, but international students should not be used as a way to fill in the gaps of chronic underfunding by a central government of the universities.”

Even if you have the money, and have jumped through every administrative hoop, you still can’t celebrate too hard. Several international tauira told us anonymously that they always felt “anxious” if they went to a party and people were doing drugs, as they feared they might get into trouble by association and be sent home. 

Getting sent home because of someone else’s actions isn’t unheard of. In 2017, Rahul Reddy and at least eight other international tauira from India were deported from New Zealand. Reddy arrived in Aotearoa in 2015, and within a few months, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) found that the immigration agency Reddy and dozens of others had used to get into the country had falsified their documents, and that Reddy was a victim of this fraud. They argued their case until their deportation in 2017, and continued their efforts until 2019 when the government announced four of the tauira would be allowed to return. That same year, INZ announced it was seeing cases of fraud rise 88%, leading to backlogs and longer delays for many international tauira – especially in India following the closure of the INZ Delhi branch.

Even assuming your paperwork is all in order and you haven’t been scammed, your stay in Aotearoa may rest precariously on the behest of your specific university. Last year Prithwish Sain, a chemistry PhD student from India who said he was due to finish his PhD by the end of 2021, was facing deportation after his enrolment at the University of Waikato was terminated by the Uni. Sain’s PhD supervisor withdrew from his role after “irreconcilable differences” developed between the two, and Waikato School of Graduate Research dean Kay Weaver said the faculty of science could not find an alternative supervisor. RNZ reported that Sain had laid a number of complaints against his supervisor, including “bullying and harassment, accusations of theft and the misuse of Sain's research data”, which Waikato Uni is investigating separately. A University spokesperson told RNZ the case was "complex and lengthy" but it had acted fairly.

For tauiwi with disabilities or other health needs, there are even more hurdles to jump (or wheel) through, including for international tauira and recent graduates. To stay in New Zealand on most visas, you have to pass an ‘Acceptable Standard of Health’ test to ensure you don’t cost the health system too much money, which Ricardo says “effectively reduces disabled migrants and migrants with health conditions to a dollar figure”.

Dr Lida Ayoubi, an AUT law lecturer specialising in disability rights, and Dr Solmaz Nazari Orakani, a postdoctoral research fellow looking at accessible health care for disabled people, pointed out in a Stuff piece from March that “in many instances, the disabled applicant or their guardians have been working in New Zealand and paying taxes.” Dr Ayoubi and Dr Nazari argued that “these taxes help support the operation of the public health system, which should be available to them as taxpayers” and claimed the acceptable standard of health criteria was discriminatory against disabled people.

In the past few years, dozens of headlines made the news about a whānau member of migrants being deported or denied entry based on these criteria, and hundreds more go unreported. 

One recent high-profile case was that of Arianna Alfonso, a 12-year-old girl from the Philippines who has been denied visas to Aotearoa because of her autism, which would likely impose costs on the NZ education system for extra tautoko (support). Arianna’s parents both have permanent residency here, but her mum Gail has remained living overseas for the past six years so that she can stay and look after Arianna while Arianna’s dad Allan continues working in Tāmaki Makaurau.

There are countless examples of families having to leave the country, or split their family, because a disabled relative was denied a visa. The families of 13-year-old Peter Leemans, who is autistic, and 4-year-old Ruby O'Connor, who has TBCK (a rare neuro-genetic syndrome) both left the country in recent years. 20-year-old Sagar Narayan, who is autistic, was granted residence hours before he was set to be deported in 2017.

In June this year, Stuff reported on a two-year-old with Down Syndrome who was set to be deported. The unnamed 2-year-old girl was born in New Zealand to two Thai chefs on work visas. She failed to meet the acceptable standard of health but the parents appealed, with the girl’s GP saying that sending her back to Thailand as Covid surges continued would “be tantamount to a death sentence”. Covid death rates are 10 times higher for people with Down Syndrome. The appeal was successful, and the 2-year-old girl was granted a 12-month visitor visa, with the tribunal saying it hoped the Covid crisis was “more contained” in Thailand by the time it expired. The girl, and her parents, face an uncertain future in a year’s time.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is another standard migrants have to meet for the acceptable standard of health, despite doctors and researchers generally agreeing BMI is an inappropriate and inaccurate measurement of health. One man told Newshub in April that he was facing deportation because of his weight, despite his doctors agreeing he was in good health.

Evgenii Liapin, from Russia, is one graduate who faced an uphill visa battle thanks to the acceptable standard of health criteria. After studying for a graduate diploma in public relations, he applied for a post-graduate work visa but was denied because he has Kugelburg Welander disease, a muscular disorder. Facing deportation, he fought back and INZ reconsidered, telling the NZ Herald in June they’d given Evgenii an exemption, granting him a visa. 

Robin* graduated from Otago Uni in 2019 after studying in the humanities department, and talked to Critic Te Ārohi about her experiences as an international tauira. Robin was given a student visa and allowed to study in Aotearoa despite her disability, but had to pay for medical screenings every year to ensure she still met the acceptable standard of health. “Each medical check costs about $500, and having to prove that I am capable and won’t be a burden on New Zealand society every year is quite a financial and emotional burden on myself.” 

Robin says that she felt she could not reach out for support when she needed it, for fear of what the visa implications might be. “As a disabled person, I believe in the value of interdependency, that no one is totally independent on our own, but we need each other’s support. However, having to prove that I won’t be a burden on the country meant that I did not feel like I could reach out for support when it would have been better if I could.” 

Robin also says other international tauira she knows, even those without disabilities, are afraid to get medical help when they need it. 1News found the same issue in November last year, hearing from international tauira in Tāmaki Makaurau who were afraid to get medical help for serious illnesses or counselling for anxiety and depression, because they feared it would mean they’d lose their visas. Robin now runs @endASHnow on twitter with her friend, highlighting the suffering the acceptable standard of health criteria creates. She hopes to begin a master’s degree at Otago next year.

Juliana Carvalho, a paraplegic woman from Brazil, won her immigration battle in 2020 after eight years of campaigning and public pressure. She is now fighting for changes to the system, and her petition, which was presented to parliament this year, gained nearly 35,000 signatures.

Robin, Carvalho, and other disability advocates have called for the acceptable standard of health requirement to be scrapped and replaced with a “strength-based approach” to solve these issues. Immigration New Zealand is reviewing this part of immigration policy and has indicated it may adjust the cost threshold that is in place, but not the “principles behind immigration health screening”, suggesting that the acceptable standard of health criteria is here to stay.

*name changed

This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2022.
Posted 7:06pm Friday 5th August 2022 by Elliot Weir.