No rays of light in residency bid

Ben Clegg of RGB Lighting with a photograph of the Rainbow in the Dark installation in  Queen’s Gardens, taken  during the opening night of Light Nelson in 2013.
Ben Clegg of RGB Lighting with a photograph of the Rainbow in the Dark installation in Queen’s Gardens, taken during the opening night of Light Nelson in 2013.

British artist Ben Clegg is battling to stay in Nelson after being told his application to stay is unlikely to succeed. Sarah Dunn investigates.

British artist Ben Clegg has found the end of the rainbow in Takaka - but he may not be allowed to stay.

Clegg came to New Zealand in 2010 to be with former partner Enfys Bellamy. The pair settled in Golden Bay and were jointly responsible for the "laser rainbow" installation, Rainbow in the Dark, which was the most popular exhibit at last year's Light Nelson event.

Clegg, who has been working as a visual artist for 25 years, plans to tour the artwork around the country.

In order to get the required funding from Creative New Zealand, however, he first needs to gain residency, and missteps and mistakes have dogged his path to permanent residence. When Clegg first arrived on a three-year-long term business visa, he had intended to apply for residency through the entrepreneur track. A year into his stay, he called the Department of Immigration twice, and was reportedly told each time that he should wait three years before applying.

When that time was up, Clegg called up again, only to be told there had been a misunderstanding. He was advised to get his papers in immediately. While they were being processed, his visa expired, and he spent two weeks as an illegal overstayer before being granted the first of a series of extensions.

In April this year, Immigration case officer Matthew Harrington told him that his application was likely to be turned down as RGB Lighting's annual net profit did not meet the Department of Immigration's requirements for those entering as entrepreneurs. He offered to help Clegg change tactics and apply for a residency on the grounds of his partnership with Bellamy instead.

The uncertainty of the process as a whole took its toll on RGB Lighting, which Clegg runs alone. He said he had to be careful about which jobs he took on during the application period as he did not want to compromise any festivals or productions by abruptly having to withdraw his lighting arrangements.

Later in April, Clegg was unexpectedly issued a three-month visitors' visa instead of his usual work visa, which meant he was unable to work.

"The implications of being semi-legal has had an effect on my business, definitely," he said. "It's put me in a state of mind that is not conducive to getting work."

In July, Clegg applied for and was granted a two-year work visa, but this spark of light was dampened when Clegg was informed that his application for residency under partnership was not done correctly. He would have to fill out all his paperwork again and reapply. The stress was too much for his and Bellamy's relationship, and in August they broke up.

Clegg is now in limbo. He hired immigration lawyer Carsten Hallwass after the split, and the pair decided together that they would allow his partnership residency application to continue through the system and be declined. This happened last month - Clegg's old application under the entrepreneur track was also declined at the same time.

Hallwass said he did not feel that Clegg had been unduly "messed around" by Immigration, but Clegg's personal situation was very unfortunate. He believed Clegg's contribution to the Nelson and Golden Bay communities through his art would reflect positively on his bid for residency.

"He brings a lot of joy to people, and he's passionate about what he's doing."

Immigration's lead communications advisor, Marc Piercey, confirmed that Clegg had originally applied for residence under the entrepreneur category before being advised that although it was clear he would not meet the residency requirements for this, he could be eligible under partnership. The subsequent application was declined on October 3 as Clegg and his partner were no longer living together.

Piercey could not confirm Clegg's claim that he was told by Immigration that he had to wait three years before being able to lodge a residence application.

He said Clegg had 42 days from the date of Immigration's decision to appeal to the independent Immigration and Protection Tribunal, and he was on a valid work visa until July 13 next year.

Clegg is as passionate as he ever was about living in New Zealand, but said he felt upset that such a series of blunders had derailed his hopes. He regretted not hiring a lawyer sooner to help him navigate the system.

"I am to blame within this for not playing the game," he said.

He has reached out to West Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor, who met with him last week. O'Connor said that, as with many other worthy constituents, he was happy to advocate for Clegg's residency.

"We are a country that relies on skilled quality migrants, especially in the regions. My personal view is that migrants should move to the regions before they can shift to the cities where we have infrastructural and housing problems."

Clegg said the landscape he woke up to every morning in his house truck at Tata Beach exemplified the reasons he wanted to live in New Zealand forever. The energy of the land, the warmth of the people and the visual stimulation all helped his creativity flourish like nowhere else had.

"I feel at home here. I feel I've finally found home."

The Nelson Mail