Immigration Minister, Erica Stanford

Teething problems or fundamental flaws; a Select Committee last Wednesday heard a whole series of issues that have cropped up with Immigration New Zealand and the Accredited Employer Work visa.

This is the visa that admits skilled workers and sets them on a path to permanent residence.

The most serious allegation raised in front of the Committee was that overseas immigration agents were conspiring with New Zealand employers to “sell” jobs here to potential migrants.

But there were also questions about the high staff turnover at Immigration New Zealand and its tardiness in processing visa applications.

In one of the most forensic interrogations we have seen at a Select Committee this year, National’s Immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford, put the heat on Immigration Minister Michael Wood and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Deputy Secretary Immigration Alison McDonald.

Stanford’s performance was evidence of why more people within National are talking about her, a second-term MP, as a future leadership prospect.

The main issue at the Select Committee was the new Accredited Employer Work visa.

This demands a three-step process before a visa can be issued.

First, the employer must be checked out and accredited as a suitable employer of migrants by Immigration New Zealand.

Then the job being offered must be checked out by Immigration New Zealand, who look at whether it has been advertised in “approved” media to attract New Zealand candidates.

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Finally, the immigrant themselves must fill out a complex web-based form about their background and qualifications.

According to Stanford, that is where the fraud comes in.

Employer sources have told POLITIK that the form is so complex that most potential migrants hire an immigration agent to fill it out for them.

But according to Stanford, the agents have seen an opportunity and offer jobs to potential migrants but then require that they pay a fee to take the jobs up.

Thar raised the question of how detailed a check was made on the visa applicant’s credentials.

Immigration Minister Michael Wood told the Committee that “we do make sure that we verify that the information they provide is correct. “

However, McDonald said that Immigration did not carry out these checks itself.

Instead, it relied on the employer to check the credentials of somebody that they were employing. 

Stanford raised a hypothetical case of a painter who claimed to have 15 years experience.

McDonald said it would be hard to verify that.

Stanford: “Are you at Immigration New Zealand verifying qualifications and work experience? Are you making phone calls, emails to old employers to check?”

McDonald: “No, we’re not. And we didn’t do that in the past either.”

It was an astonishing admission; that Immigration NZ did not check the credentials of would-be migrants.

Instead, it relies on checking their employers.

“We look at the information that’s provided to us from face value; if it looks right, we expect that the employer would have checked that before they employ someone,” McDonald said.

“The difference between now and the past is that employers are accredited, so they have responsibilities on them when they’re employing migrants.

“So we expect them to take those seriously, and we have a compliance regime around checking those employers.”

 But Stanford said she was increasingly hearing about the consequences of Immigration NZ not doing verification checks.

“Overseas agents are now selling jobs and saying, hey, pay me $20,000, and you’re now a painter; here is all your documentation, and INZ is not checking it,” she said.

“What I’m concerned about this is that we are flooding New Zealand potentially with unskilled, unqualified migrants, which is exactly what Michael Wood doesn’t want to happen.

“But it’s happening because no one is doing the verification check, and they’re  slipping in.”

McDonald contested this.

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” she said.

“We’re doing as many checks as we did in the past.

“We have got more of an onus on employers.”

In an unusual inversion of the normal practice at Select Committees, it was left to the Minister to come to the rescue of his official.

“A core part of the immigration systems function is to ensure the integrity of the system,” he said.

Therefore it was important that the people who were coming over the border were coming to do the things that they were able to do under the conditions of their visa.

“It has always been and will always be the case that there will be people who test the limits of New Zealand because it is a desirable place to come.

“We will, from time to time, get those examples, as we always have. In Immigration, New Zealand has an important job in terms of verification and compliance.

“There is a balance to be struck at the time of visa processing, and much of the pressure and criticism of Immigration New Zealand has been a suggestion that that is overly burdensome and takes too long.

“You could keep going to the nth degree to turn out every bit of information, test every single thing in the system if you wanted to, but that would inevitably result in slower processing times.

“It would make it more difficult to get here, so it is about striking a balance.”

Stanford told the Committee that not only were immigration agents seeking fees from potential migrants, but they were splitting those fees with potential employers in New Zealand.

“There is a quite a bit of fraud happening,” she said.

Stanford also questioned ImmigrationNZ about the increase in its staff numbers.

She said the department had 2280 staff in 2022 compared to 1893 in 2017. (a 20 per cent increase)

Despite this, only 13,000 visa applications were processed in 2022 compared with 60,000 in 2017.

McDonald blamed the high staff turnover within the department and the need to hire new staff as part of the reason for the slowdown in visa processing.

“We’ve got a lot of new people,” she said.

“40% of the workforce have been with me for less than a year, 21% less than three months. So we need to get them up to speed.”

Throughout the session, Erica Stanford’s questioning was a rare textbook case in how to prise that sort of information out of a Minister and a department at a Select Committee.

The end result was an impression of a department struggling to cope with the demands placed on it.

Call that a win for the Opposition.