Story: Immigration regulation
Page 5 – 1986–2003: selection on personal merit
1986–87: a review and a new act
The Immigration Policy Review of 1986 was the culmination of the gradual shift which began in the 1960s. It marked a real break with the earlier emphasis on nationality and ethnic origin as the basis for admitting immigrants. Any person who met specified educational, business, professional, age or asset requirements was to be admitted, regardless of race or nationality.
Under the Immigration Act 1987, which followed the review, immigrants were selected according to three categories:
- A skills and business stream. An occupational priority list identified skills needed in New Zealand. Priority was also given to entrepreneurs and business people; business immigrants were expected to transfer at least NZ$150,000 to New Zealand. Ability in English language was assessed at interviews. This category proved by far the most important, and accounted for over half the immigrants who arrived after 1987.
- A family stream. Restrictions on family migration were eased under the 1987 act. Migrants who did not have immediate relatives elsewhere in the world were allowed to join family members living in New Zealand. Up to a third of the subsequent immigrants came under this category.
- A humanitarian stream. This was for people whose circumstances were causing them emotional or physical harm. In most years about 10% entered New Zealand under this category.
Immigration Amendment Act 1991
The Immigration Amendment Act 1991 replaced the occupational priority list with a points system. Applicants were awarded points for employability, age, educational qualifications and settlement funds. A modest level of English was required.
Under the points system, any applicant achieving a minimum number of points was automatically eligible for admission. Yearly immigration targets were set and the total number coming in was adjusted by raising or lowering the number of points needed, or by tightening or easing such criteria as English language requirements.
Other changes introduced in 1991 included a new ‘general skills’ category under which an applicant had to have a degree or certified trade or vocational qualification.
These changes favoured people of early to middle working age, who had appropriate qualifications, work experience and business skills, the ability to be self-supporting on arrival, or the capital to invest in a business.
From 1991, people from non-traditional source countries found it easier to meet the criteria to migrate to New Zealand. The number of Asian migrants grew.
The regulations were reviewed again in October 1995 to ensure that New Zealand continued to attract migrants who would most benefit the country. Concern about the increasing number of Asians living in New Zealand was probably also behind the review.
The previous points system was replaced with a ‘pass mark’ which was adjusted according to a set quota or target. This provided more control over the numbers of migrants each year.
English language requirements also became tighter. Principal applicants had to meet a minimum standard of English. Non-principal applicants aged 16 or over were also required to pass an English test or pay a $20,000 bond, refunded if a satisfactory standard was reached within 12 months. In 1998 the pre-purchase of language courses replaced the language bond. The aim was to attract business migrants perceived to have been put off by earlier changes in the regulations.
Changes in 2002 and 2003
The drive to attract immigrants in areas of skill shortage, and perhaps a response to growing public concern about levels of immigration from Asia, led to further changes.
In 2002 the standard of English required for the general skills category and some of the business categories was raised to the level required of students entering university.
In 2003 the general skills category was replaced by a skilled migrant category. This replaced the pass mark system with a process whereby people qualifying above a level of points entered a selection pool, from which they were invited to apply for residence. Applicants had to be of good health and character, and points were allocated on the basis of age, qualifications, employment status, work experience, identified skills shortage and the regional location of any job offer.
There was still encouragement for business immigrants, including the following groups:
- investors, who were expected to contribute a minimum of NZ$1 million
- entrepreneurs, who had to prove that they had established a successful business in New Zealand
- employees of relocating businesses
- others who were given the opportunity to establish a business as the basis for future residence.
There were also language tests for business immigrants, although at a lower level. The skilled migrant and business categories were expected to provide 60% of new immigrants. The target was 45,000 a year (plus or minus 5,000).
Family members, especially partners and dependent children, were also allocated immigration places, and were expected to comprise 30% of the total number of immigrants each year.
At the Chinese New Year celebration on 12 February 2002, Prime Minister Helen Clark made this statement:
I wish to announce today that the government has decided to make a formal apology to those Chinese people who paid the poll tax and suffered other discrimination imposed by statute and to their descendants. With respect to the poll tax we recognise the considerable hardship it imposed and that the cost of it and the impact of other discriminatory immigration practices split families apart. Today we also express our sorrow and regret that such practices were once considered appropriate. 1
The remaining 10% of places were set aside for migrants who arrived for primarily humanitarian reasons. This included refugees and those Pacific Islanders given special access.
In 2004 New Zealand’s immigration regulations remained blind to race or nationality. But there was some evidence that the focus on skills and the high level of English language requirements were leading to a reduction in the number of immigrants from Asia.