It is heartbreaking that the genuine husbands and wives of New Zealanders are being prevented from joining them in New Zealand, says Ankur Sabharwal, owner of immigration advisory Visa Matters.
OPINION: Desperate New Zealanders are travelling to Covid-hit countries to reunite with their overseas spouses in the hope that Immigration New Zealand (INZ) will grant their loved ones a visa.
INZ does not encourage this practice, dubbed ‘fetch and fly’ by one of my colleagues.
It goes against government travel advice during the pandemic, and there is no guarantee it will result in a visa being approved.
Nevertheless, many desperate Kiwis feel it’s their only chance to bring their overseas partners to New Zealand.
A systematic policy of exclusion
The reason New Zealanders are risking their health in this way is because their overseas partners fail to meet INZ’s ‘living together’ test. That is, although a couple may have been married for months or even years, have exchanged thousands of texts and met hundreds of times over video calls, they have not lived together long enough to satisfy INZ requirements.
In fact, just living together won’t meet INZ’s requirements: there has to be a paper trail of evidence.
This evidence can include, but is not limited to:
joint ownership of residential property
a joint tenancy agreement or rent book or rental receipts
correspondence (including postmarked envelopes) addressed to both principal applicant and partner at the same address.
Of course, not everyone owns property, and it’s not unusual for a lease and utilities to be in just one rather than both partners’ names.
Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March’s partner from Mexico was apparently able to meet these requirements and be granted a visa to enter New Zealand not long ago. I asked Ricardo what evidence they’d been able to provide of their living together, but he wouldn’t say.
Ricardo did say that INZ case officers sometimes interpret ‘living together’ requirements differently, and this can negatively affect people from visa-required countries such as India and China.
“I would add that it particularly affects queer, interfaith and couples in situations where they may not be able to present a relationship that fits into the often narrow criteria,” he said.
Is INZ being tougher than usual because of the pandemic?
You might suppose that INZ is being tougher than usual because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, INZ has always done its utmost to exclude the partners of New Zealanders, and the partners of people who hold NZ work and student visas, who fall outside their narrow criteria.
In 2013, after intervention by the Ombudsman, INZ agreed to review more than 1000 partnership visa applications from India that it had declined on the grounds of ‘bona fides’.
They’d effectively told applicants, ‘Your partner lives in New Zealand and you don’t have employment to return to in India, so you obviously aren’t a genuine temporary entrant.’
In 2019, INZ was at it again, using the ‘living together’ test to suddenly stop approving general visitor visas for people in genuine relationships.
That time it took the intervention of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to force INZ to return to its usual practice. Ardern said that a strict visa policy that outraged New Zealand’s Indian community because of its impact on arranged marriages should be reversed, which it was.
Then along came the pandemic, and the doors swung shut again.
People are now even being turned down because of a previously seldom-used subclause in INZ’s definition of living together – namely, that it ‘does not include time spent in each other’s homes while still maintaining individual residences’.
Let’s say a long-suffering New Zealander moves overseas during the pandemic to live with their spouse, but doesn’t sell their house or give up the property they’re renting in New Zealand. INZ will tell the overseas partner, ‘You don’t meet our definition of living together.’
These efforts to prevent the genuine husbands and wives of New Zealanders from joining them in New Zealand are heart-breaking. And it is happening again and again.
What can New Zealanders do to reunite with their overseas spouses?
This is the sort of catch-22 that has led desperate New Zealanders to resort to ‘fetch and fly’, despite INZ’s warnings it may not work.
Stories like this one about Kiwis’ and temporary visa holders’ spouses being refused border exemptions to join them in New Zealand appear in the media almost daily.
I asked INZ how New Zealanders whose relationships are genuine but who don’t meet the ‘living together’ requirement can get their partners here: their answer was that they can’t until the border reopens. And nobody knows when that will be.