Fast-tracked pathways to residency are a myth, but the process isn’t much better across the Tasman, says veteran immigration adviser Iain MacLeod.

In May, the government announced a “green list” of highly skilled occupations that from September would be offered a “straight to residence” fast track, but MacLeod told BusinessDesk what they are really getting is a place in a very long queue.

MacLeod pointed to the one-off 2021 residence visa which the government promised would be a fast track to residency but so far only 30% of more than a 100,000 applications have been processed.

“There are still 70,000 applications sitting in that queue, and at the current rate of processing, it's mid to late 2023 before those fast-tracked people will have their residency.”

MacLeod has worked in the immigration advice industry for more than three decades and said the lack of capacity at Immigration NZ (INZ) is a perennial issue that makes it meaningless for politicians to talk about fast-tracking. 

Iain MacLeod says Immigration NZ's lack of capacity is the big story (Image supplied).

“We had these two-year backlogs before any of us ever heard of covid.

“The biggest story here has got to be the lack of capacity, and the lack of capability, inside INZ in recent years to get anything done."

Greener grass?

MacLeod also told BusinessDesk the grass wasn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the Tasman.

Both countries are experiencing a health sector staffing crisis and are competing for a global pool of talent.

In NZ, some healthcare roles, such as nurses, midwives, and laboratory technicians are on the second tier of the green list, which means they have to work for two years before they can apply for residency.

Many stakeholders, including the government’s own Health NZ agency, are lobbying for them to go on the fast track tier, with some critics saying nurses can get a better deal across the Tasman.

Australia not only fast-tracks when sought-after migrants can apply for residence but has issued a “priority migration skilled occupation list”, putting them at the front of the queue for processing.

According to an Australian government website, one of the major fast track residence categories has had 90% of its visas processed within eight months.

MacLeod said that while some migrants could land in Australia with a fast track residence visa in hand, even for them, the whole process, including occupational registration, took about a year in total.

The fast track also requires three years of work experience, so recent graduates can only get in on the equivalent of NZ's two-year work to residence pathway, or try to qualify under a points system that involves an additional step of state government sponsorship.

“So there are no instant nurses that decide tomorrow, they want to move to Australia, and next week, they get off the plane and they get residency. No way.”

In any case, MacLeod thinks policy comparisons are a moot point as migrants often select the country where they have the best network of family or friends. 

“As someone who helps nurses move to New Zealand and Australia, I have yet to find one single nurse that chooses Australia or New Zealand for wages or conditions, not one.

“So all this talk about, it's all bigger and brighter and better over there, and quicker, in my experience, is garbage.”

He also said, despite Australia’s priority list, residency processing is generally slower than what it used to be, with 12-to-15 months being the norm, compared to six-to-eight months a few years ago.

Their immigration agency also had its funding cut by a third in the March budget with the Australian Financial Review reporting fears it will lead to further delays in processing times.

Loophole?

The green list falls under the skilled migrant category (SMC) of the residence programme – which is currently under review – so immigration advisers don’t yet know how it will all work in practice.

Previously, highly skilled SMC applicants had a choice of pathways with many who had been on a two-year work to residency also qualifying under a points system.

He suspected many nurses will score the points required to file for residency “as soon as the ink is dry on an employment contract”. 

“I expect that's what's going to happen here, in which case nurses can relax because they'll get residency under the point system.”

In the meantime, it’s a challenge advising clients who qualify for the green list.

“They're going to start a new queue from September: will it be faster to go fast track green list or will it be faster to go points system? What priority is going to be given? I really don't know.

“But one thing I will bet the farm on is ‘fast track’ are two really nice words that don't actually apply to anything at the moment.”