Explainer: What do the Government's immigration changes mean? video

STUFF.CO.NZ

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse revealed a tightening up of New Zealand's immigration system.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse has announced a number of changes to New Zealand's immigration system, aimed at tackling both the number and quality of immigrants coming here for work.

However, Labour and NZ First have already dismissed the changes as "tinkering" and "a con" respectively, saying they'll do nothing to ease record migration levels.

So what has the Government announced, and how will it actually affect the number of people coming here?

Will the Government's immigration policies take off successfully, or have they failed to get off the ground?
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Will the Government's immigration policies take off successfully, or have they failed to get off the ground?

Here's what you need to know.

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What has the Government actually done?

They've made a number of changes to the rules for people applying for a skilled migrant visa - a points-based system for people who want to work and live here indefinitely.

One of the main changes is the introduction of two "remuneration thresholds".

RNZ

The Labour Leader Andrew Little rejects claims he wants to slash immigration by as much as 50,000 people a year but maintains the number has to fall by "tens of thousands".

If an applicant would earn less than the median New Zealand income of $48,859, they won't get any points - even if their job was previously considered as skilled.

Any migrant who would earn more than $73,299 a year - one-and-a-half times the median income - will get points, even if they work in an area not previously classified as skilled.

There are also "bonus points" on offer for anyone paid more than $97,718 a year, while there will be more points available for work experience, post-graduate degrees, and people aged between 30 and 39.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says the Government wants to tackle the number and quality of migrants arriving here.
CAMERON BURNELL/ FAIRFAX NZ

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says the Government wants to tackle the number and quality of migrants arriving here.

On the flipside, migrants will no longer get points for qualifications in an area of "absolute skills shortage", or for experience and qualifications in future growth areas, such as ICT and creative industries.

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What about people here on temporary visas?

The same income thresholds will apply. Someone eligible for a temporary "essential skills" work visa who earns less than the median income can still work here, but only for a maximum of three years before a "stand down period" and a new application.

It will also be harder for their families to enter the country. Currently, partners and children can obtain open work visas and student visas, but the changes would mean they could enter the country as visitors and only get a work visa if they met requirements themselves.

Someone after a temporary work visa and earning more than $73,299 will be automatically classed as higher-skilled, meaning the time restriction doesn't apply to them.

In addition, seasonal workers will have their visas limited to the length of their work, rather than 12 months as is currently the case.

NZN VIDEO

Prime Minister Bill English said the changes would be about getting better control and better matching immigrants with the skills needed by Kiwi employers.

Anything else?

The Government is also introducing a one-off "pathway to residence" for about 4000 long-term temporary migrant workers in the South Island, such as those in the meat or dairy industry, and their families.

Woodhouse said the workers had filled genuine shortages and their families had become well settled, but there was no way for them to become residents under the current rules.

Migrants who meet the criteria will get a "work to residence" temporary visa, making them eligible for residency after two more years as long as they stay in the same industry and region.

Why make the changes?

Record migration levels have been praised as a sign of strong economic growth, but there are fears about how the influx of people will put pressure on public services and infrastructure.

In his speech, Woodhouse said the Government wanted to "control the number and improve the quality of new migrants coming to New Zealand".

He also raised concerns about the number of temporary workers staying in the country for many years without any pathway to residency - hence the new three-year limit.

A Treasury briefing from late 2015 also raised concerns about lower-skilled migrants shutting out local workers and stopping wages from growing - one possible reason for the new pay bands.

"This may have been discouraging some firms from either increasing wages and working conditions or investing, either in training existing workforce or in capital."

What about the politics of the issue?

It is election year, and opposition parties have accused the Government of failing to address the strain on Auckland and elsewhere by "turning down the tap" at a time of high demand.

The changes may be aimed at dampening down what could be a hot topic at the polls, without stifling immigration too much and hurting the economy.

How have political parties reacted?

Labour leader Andrew Little says the Government's "tinkering" will not fix the immigration system or ease the strain on public services, while NZ First leader Winston Peters has described the changes as a "con" and "a callous attempt to hold onto power" without addressing the real issue.

"They are fiddling with the issue while the plain fact is foreign workers will still be able to come here when employers claim they can't get Kiwis."
ACT leader David Seymour is also critical but for different reasons, saying the Government should not be targeting migrant workers who contribute to New Zealand by paying tax but instead those coming here and "ripping off taxpayers".

So how much of a difference will the changes actually make?

It's not that clear. The Government's own Q+A says that while some people in low-paid employment may be shut out, the door will open to others in highly paid jobs that were previously considered low skilled.

It estimates there were just over 1700 lower skilled workers that had held a temporary visa for three years or longer, giving some idea of how many could be affected by the new time limit in that area.

However, the changes are not retrospective, meaning migrants and their families who have already received visas will not be forced out of the country.

 - Stuff

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