Health costs and social welfare claims weighed on the previous government's decision to suspend the parent category visa. But that was two years ago - and families are now asking when and if a ban will be lifted on overseas parents joining their children and grandchildren as residents. In this Insight investigation Gill Bonnett looks at whether the humanitarian and social costs will outweigh the financial and political costs the government has to consider.
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Wendy and Trevor Hardy have been living in a caravan in England for the past two years while they wait for news of whether they can emigrate to live near their daughter and son in New Zealand. They have three grand-children here and a great-grandchild, plus their youngest daughter lives in Australia. They sold their house and bought one in Whanganui - luckily now being rented out - and envisaged a temporary stay in the Winksley Banks Holiday Park near Ripon in North Yorkshire.
"We thought, no problem, we've got a static caravan, we'll move into that for a few months,” Mrs Hardy said.
“And by then we should, in the next few months, be pulled out of the hat, and everything should be ok and we'd be on our way to New Zealand.
"But here we are two years later still here, really in limbo, not knowing when - or if - we're likely to be granted a visa.
"The years are ticking by. Trevor's 80 in January, I'm 76. Having lived in our own home for many years, I know there are a lot of people less fortunate than ourselves, but it is very cramped. Most of our belongings are in storage and we're limited about what we can do."
Theirs are among the 5536 expressions of interest still waiting in a pool to be selected to apply for a parent category residence visa. The oldest of them dates back to 2012. The true number of people waiting to find out news is higher, as some applications are from two parents, and there are other families who are still waiting to lodge an expression of interest. Still more, some not even yet arrived themselves, are eyeing moves to other countries where parent programmes are still open. The category was suspended in October 2016, by the National immigration minister Michael Woodhouse, who ordered a review of costs and whether sponsorship commitments were being upheld. But families say they cannot see any progress has been made on that review and whether the category should be changed - or ditched. Adult children are worried about how their parents are faring, especially when they are living alone and with little support.
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Auckland University professor Deborah Levy moved to New Zealand more than 30 years ago, marrying husband Brian Bookman and having three children. She said her mother, Betty Mills, is stoic about the situation but at 84, needed some certainty about her future. Widowed, and living alone in the London suburb of Wembley, Mrs Mills visits them in Remuera in the summer but they want her here permanently.
"She's in good health, but she's lost a lot of friends who have passed away," she said.
"She's lonely a lot of the time.
"It's about being compassionate and inclusive, families are really important in the health of a nation and also I think in the prosperity of a nation and it's breaking up families that want to be together.
"Time's ticking on Mum's side, she's not going to get any healthier as time goes by and we're just very fearful really that we've missed the boat - it's over."
Prof Levy’s local Member of Parliament, the ACT Party leader David Seymour, said it was having a harrowing effect on families - and meant valuable immigrants were taking their talents elsewhere. Other MPs have also been approached for support, and to try and find some news on when the deadlock may be broken.
Mr Seymour said several constituents had approached him to ask for help to put an end to what he described as a “silly moratorium” which did not take account of families who are able to fully support their parents, and who will be no burden on the taxpayer.
It was that question of costs that prompted the review, Mr Woodhouse saying immigrant parents were costing the country tens of millions of dollars in healthcare and social welfare, some of them having been abandoned physically and financially by their children after they arrived in the country.
The current Immigration Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, said officials were due to report back to him soon with options on the parent category, and public consultation will follow the Cabinet’s decision on its proposals. He refused to be drawn on how long that might take.
"This is one of the more finely balanced decisions,” he said. “I wouldn't want to pre-suppose when an announcement might happen, I'm awaiting initial advice from MBIE (Ministry of Business Immigration and Employment) to guide the proposals that I may or may not take to Cabinet and then there's a Cabinet process to go through.
"So I wouldn't want to place any unrealistic expectations on how long that may take, we're working through that process now and I'm looking forward to being able to make a decision one way or the other - reasonably soon."
The most fundamental decision that the government had to make was whether the parent category would be reintroduced at all, he said. The decision could be a difficult one for the coalition - New Zealand First put pressure on the last government over the costs of elderly parent residents and whether sponsorship commitments were being delivered on. Cracks have already appeared.
The New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson hastily corrected himself after RNZ put his statement - that the category would not be re-opened while his party was in government - to the minister. Mr Lees-Galloway said consultations with New Zealand First and the Green Party on all decisions were rigorous and evidence-based. Meanwhile Immigration New Zealand said it understands families’ situations but can offer no new advice.
“No decisions have been made about starting selections of EoIs [expressions of interest] again. As the criteria for selection could be changed as a result of future Cabinet decisions, there is no guarantee that people who have submitted an EoI will be invited to apply.”
A decision on the two-year moratorium on processing the visas would have been due next month, but at this stage there is no indication of when any decision will be made.