Advice at a Price

by Amanda Spratt / 02 September, 2006
Twenty-nine-year-old European professional fluent in English desperately seeks country to work in, pay taxes to and grow old with. Likes rugby, chats about politics and runs in the park.

Of the thousands of potential migrants looking to form a meaningful - and legal - bond with this country every year, German native Jörn Adam stacks up pretty well. He holds a four-year degree in commerce and engineering, devotes his spare time to sports coaching and was chuffed when, on his return from a holiday in Germany, a New Zealand airport official said, "Welcome home."

But he almost gave up trying to stay here after going a few rounds with the immigration industry.

The financial consultant felt drawn to New Zealand when spending a semester here as a student. He came back two years ago on a working holiday and fell for a New Zealander, Deborah Widdowson. He decided to stay a little longer, but it took the Department of Labour's immigration branch two and a half months to extend his work visa. By the time he got it, his current visa had expired and he was relying on Widdowson's income to get by.

Adam decided to make a commitment to New Zealand. Enquiries as to how to do this, through the Immigration Service's call centre, met different levels of success. The service's website was a Bermuda triangle, even to Widdowson. Adam was assigned a case worker, but found him elusive and unhelpful. Calls went unanswered, weeks ticked by.

The experience left Adam cynical, and Widdowson embarrassed as a New Zealander: "It's a very stressful time," says Adam. "You become a nervous wreck. You worry if you cause a fuss they'll put your application at the bottom of the pile."

Of the more than 4000 applications the Immigration Service deals with every year, some are simple, others more complicated and take longer, says the Department of Labour's Mary Anne Thompson. Skilled migrants are processed first, and staff rely on the applicants to give them the right information. Staff try to make the process smooth, she says.

Adam, who speaks perfect English, decided to turn to one of the country's 1000-and-growing immigration advisers for help. It took a couple of consultations and about $1500 - a lot of money, he says, but worth it, because he got a more permanent working visa.

But a few months down the track when he enquired about permanent residency, the prices "went out of this world". Not wanting to brave the Immigration Service alone again, he called consultants for quotes. The most expensive ($10,000 plus GST and government fees) came from a consultant whose qualification was a Bachelor of Arts. Even the lowest quote ($4000 plus GST and fees) was too much for Adam.

He was thinking of going back to Germany when he discovered an immigration lawyer who charged by the hour. The final bill for help with his application came to just over $500.

Currently unregulated, advisers are free to charge as they please. "You have no way to know if they're ripping you off," says Adam. "I worry about those who don't speak English well or are from a country where there's corruption and they expect to pay for things like this."

Not surprisingly, he welcomes the Immigration Advisers Licensing Bill, which has had its first reading in Parliament. If passed, it will bring New Zealand in line with Canada, Britain and Australia by introducing licensing and a code of conduct. Meanwhile, the Immigration Service, which fields calls weekly from people who fear they have been cheated by unscrupulous consultants, advises potential migrants to shop around - or to manage their own applications.

Which is what Adam says he would have done, had it been easier.

"I want to work, I am happy to pay taxes and at this time the country needs qualified migrants. We are both intelligent, educated people and we found it so difficult. I could be making a lot more money somewhere else, but I love it here. I am grateful for the chance to live here, but it shouldn't have been this hard."

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