At around 11:00pm on Election Night 2019 I sat at a bar, drunk off my ass, and wept. Big horrible ugly tears. Three hours earlier at a different pub I nearly punched some suited douchebag out of pure frustration because he shoulder-checked me while high-fiving his stupid mate. On the pub TV, Antony Green had called it for the Coalition about a minute prior. There were a lot of reasons to have been shitty on this, but for me it was the heaped uncertainty that a returned Coalition Government puts on immigration. Together with my partner, an American citizen, we were navigating the process of obtaining a partner visa. It was hard as shit as it stood, and it certainly wasn’t about to get any easier.
Fast forward to this week, Budget Night 2020. Buried away in amongst the mountain of spin regarding Australia’s projected net debt of $966 billion by 2024, was the confirmation that the Morrison Federal Government will seek to implement an English language test to the partner visa process. Both the visa applicant and their citizen or permanent resident sponsor will have to prove competency in spoken and written English.
In a statement confirming the move, Immigration Minister Alan Tudge asserted “from late 2021, new partner visa applicants and permanent resident sponsors will be required to have functional level English or to demonstrate that they have made reasonable efforts to learn English. People will be able to demonstrate this through, for example, the completion of 500 hours of free English language classes through the AMEP.”
I met Katie in a Melbourne pub on April 22nd, 2017 while she was here on holiday. I’d done stand up comedy in the US a few times prior, and we had a mutual friend who pointed her in my direction in the hopes of finding a show that she – a comedian as well at the time – could perform on. Things… went in a somewhat different direction than that.
We dated long-distance for around 100 days. I travelled to Denver to hang out with her that July. By September she’d shed herself of most of her earthly possessions and had moved out to Melbourne to live with me. We’ve been together even since. This coming February, our first kid will arrive. Realistically, we’re very lucky.
That courtship process, as much as it could be, was easy. The partner visa process is anything but.
When people refer to the partner visa, they’re speaking specifically of the 820 and 801 subclass visas. The former is the somewhat oxymoronic “temporary permanent” resident visa, the latter the full-blown permanent resident visa.
Applying for them sucks.
Government officials issue an 820 visa when your initial application has been assessed. The 801 comes an arbitrary period of time later, after the application has been… extra assessed, I guess. It’s not particularly clear why this is a distinction that needs to be made.
It’s also bone-achingly expensive. The current cost of an 820 and 801 application is AUD$7,715. And that’s the mere tip of the iceberg. Factoring in associated costs like domestic police checks, international police checks, immigration lawyer consultations, health assessments and everything in between, it’s not uncommon for the total cost of a single partner visa to exceed $10,000. And in the event an application is denied, that money is not refundable.
But beyond that, what’s frequently not spoken of is the fact that the 820 visa has an extraordinarily long waiting period. Currently, 75% of 820 visa applications are assessed within 23 months of submitting. That’s nearly two whole years in immigration limbo.
During that period, you’re automatically issued what’s known as a Bridging Visa A (BVA). It’s a temporary stop-gap visa that allows you to stay in Australia while the 820/801 application is processed. If you’re lucky, it permits you to work with no restrictions, such as the six months-per-job limit on employment that working holiday visa holders are bound by. Not everyone is fortunate in that regard.
On a BVA, you’re locked inside Australia. You can’t leave. Travelling outside of Australia automatically voids the visa and the active application. You’re only permitted to leave the country by obtaining a special Bridging Visa B permit, which costs an additional $155 and isn’t guaranteed to be granted.
And all that says nothing of the application process itself.
It’s exhausting, stressful, and staggeringly invasive. The Government wants to know everything. Every gory detail of your relationship, every shred of proof that you are a “genuine” couple, all the boring minutiae of your day-to-day lives.
For us, that meant uploading virtually our whole lives to a Government database. Hundreds of pages of text message transcripts that we dragged off our phones using dodgy software; everything from shopping lists to flirty sexts and nudes. Lengthy essays on who does the vacuuming and the dishes in the house (me) and who cooks elaborate, insanely delicious meals (Katie) and why we’re happy with that setup (heteronormative standards of household chores are bullshit and outdated, and also Katie can cook her fucken ass off). Sworn, verified statutory declarations from family and friends attesting to our love and happiness. Hundreds upon hundreds of selfies, group photos, travel pics, candid snaps from around the house. Copies of ticket stubs from events we’d been to, wedding invitations we’d received, love notes we’d written each other, score cards from that one time we went and played mini-golf. Everything.
And that’s just the application itself. That says nothing of the insane Logan’s Run-esque health assessment centre Katie had to attend where they make you put on a white jumpsuit and seal you in a room that, by the sounds of it, takes its design cues from the Men in Black building. That also says nothing of the time we were given four weeks to get a full-on FBI background check, which required getting official fingerprints from Victoria Police, which required having to travel 5 1/2 hours to Wangaratta on 24-hours notice because it was Christmas and that was the only police station in the state with finger print bookings available within that four-week time period. We didn’t have a car at the time either, just to add another layer of fun on top of that.
Katie’s 820 visa took 17 months to arrive. Lightning fast by Government standards. We’re currently waiting for the 801.
The point is, this was an absolute nightmare to navigate for two native English speakers with a pre-existing, rudimentary understanding of western bureaucratic processes.
For non-English speakers, it’s virtually catastrophic. And adding the burden of undertaking 500 hours of English language classes is shitty policy from a jingoistic bygone era.
500 hours, for reference, is 12.5 weeks of full-time work. That’s a massive – gargantuan, really – extra load to place onto someone navigating this already exhausting process.
It’s not a policy borne of genuine concern for assimilation. It’s red tape discouragement.
Immigration in Australia has shifted dramatically in recent times. In the five years to June 2019, statistics show that the primary source of migration to Australia has shifted away from Oceania and Europe to South & Central Asia, as well as North-East Asia.
An added English language test benefits no one and nothing beyond the political desire to suppress migration from regions perceived as less than. And it does so by making the process so prohibitively difficult and expensive to navigate that people simply don’t bother trying.
Katie and I are very lucky, and very happy. But this policy, when enacted, will prevent so, so many others from being so fortunate. And it sucks.