Raglan resident Katy Armstrong reckons her role as an immigration adviser is really three jobs in one.
But the self-described part immigration expert, part project manager and part counsellor has just one ultimate aim – to meet the immigration goals of those who want to stay in the country.
For some the immigration system is good, user-friendly and they sail through, Katy acknowledges, but for many it can be a struggle which is why there’s a place for independent advisers.
Katy – who used to operate from home but now spends most of the working week in Hamilton – says her clients are likely to be people with complex issues or no time to navigate their way in an “unpredictable” system. She project manages their journey through the immigration process.
It’s a hard area of law to work in, the 51-year-old one-time London barrister admits, and it “demands specialism”. She and two other immigration specialists at their Hamilton office – aptly called ‘Into NZ’ – deal with all sorts of difficult situations, often with high stakes.
And while most have happy endings, some like that of a highly skilled client Katy worked with over four years can end in tragedy. That particular client had suffered brutality back in the country of origin and arrived in New Zealand suffering extreme post-traumatic distress. Katy successfully battled the system only for the client to develop health complications and die shortly after gaining refugee status.
“That was a really tough blow, although the silver lining was getting to die with dignity in the country the client called home,” says Katy. “This (kind of) work requires resilience and compassion but most times is extremely rewarding.”
Katy works with clients from all over the world, including many young internationals who fall in love with New Zealand “for obvious reasons” and want to stay. But they usually need a “skilled” job offer before getting residency, she explains, and in Raglan for instance there are few such jobs available.
Most opportunities for would-be migrants to Raglan are in hospitality, she says, but along with employers’ obligations to “put Kiwis first” it can be very difficult for them to secure that all-important visa.
“The immigration system is there to protect Kiwi jobs, and rightly so, but we do need immigrants as well,” Katy says. “It’s about taking clients through the (right) steps.”
Then there are the international students in cities like Hamilton. Most want to stay on after being encouraged by the Government to come here for a Kiwi education, but it can be really difficult for them to convert to residency.
“It’s a big issue in immigration … a hot potato. We have a system that allows offshore, unlicensed agents to ‘sell’ courses and receive a commission even though the student may well have little chance of getting a skilled job here once they graduate.
“Rarely a day goes by in the office when we are not dealing with the fallout from this national problem.”
Despite the tensions Katy loves the cases she works on from the early stages through to the settlement goal.
“But there are often lots of messes caused by unsuspecting migrants along the way which we have to fix up,” she laments. “We’re like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”
It’s not uncommon for migrants to get pinged for something they didn’t tell immigration, or for having non-compliant employment arrangements. It’s much better if they get the right advice early on.
“It’s a very tough screening process, and harder to get into New Zealand now than ever before …”
At least half Katy’s work is offshore and, while she tries not to let it impinge on family, there are often middle-of-the night skype calls to hopeful migrants on the other side of the world.
Katy also works as a consultant to the New Zealand Association of Migration & Investment, on training for immigration practitioners. A specialist in her field for a decade now, she served on the association’s board of directors for four years and in 2013 won its inaugural service award.
While on the board she was heavily involved in lobbying for immigration policy changes.
“I’m passionate about this industry,” Katy says. She believes it’s essential there’s an independent professional body like NZAMI to protect individual rights and hold the Government to account on immigration.
Unlike the typical experience of migrants she works with, Katy’s own application for permanent residence was “crazy simple”. She came here back in 1998 with her Kiwi partner Ian Mayes, who was then a builder but is now Hamilton City Council’s eco design adviser.
The couple bought a large section bordering the stream in Wainui Road and built their dream home, one where their now-teenage son Jackson was born.
Soon after, Katy decided to build on her experience of law – which included a stint in Central America as human rights lawyer working with Guatemalan refugees – and to carve out a career working with migrants.
In 2005 she took a Waikato University paper on immigration and refugee law. “I loved that paper,” she enthuses, “and the lecturer Doug Tennent was fabulous … yeah it was the right thing to do.”
Immigration has “captured me”, Katy says. “It’s my drive, my passion, and I’m committed to it.”