Migration agents say clients who have been waiting for years are now "panicking" after realising they no longer have the income to sponsor their parents to come to Australia.
Yi Cai thought she had ticked every box.
The 25-year-old Chinese-Australian has a well-paid job as an accountant in Melbourne. Three years ago, she applied for a parent visa for her mother to join her in Australia – and then, when she was promoted last year, she added her father to the application.
But earlier this month, the Turnbull government more than doubled the required salary for sponsors with a quiet change to visa regulations, without needing to pass a bill through Parliament.
Ms Cai now needs to prove she has an annual income of $86,607 to sponsor her two parents – up from around $45,000 under the previous rules.
“I feel so hopeless now, all my three years’ time waiting has been wasted,” Ms Cai told SBS News.
“It’s really tough, because I know I won't pass it.”She’s not the only one. Three migration agencies in Sydney and Melbourne told SBS News they have been inundated with calls from concerned clients on the waiting list - both parents overseas and their children in Australia - who fear they will fail the government’s new requirements.
“I believe at least 30,000 applicants who were already in the queue before 1 April 2018 will be affected by this change of policy,” migration agent Yan Kirk, director of migration agency NewStars Melbourne, told SBS News.
The government has a cap on parent visa places of just under 9,000 this year, and the waiting list is long.
'Thousands' of hopefuls affected
The Home Affairs department said the number of people in the queue is “not publically available”, but the department’s own online calculator suggests there are at least 30,000.
For the most commonly granted parent visa (contributory 143), the wait is around two or three years. For the much more restrictive non-contributory parent visa (103), the waiting list is a staggering 30 years.
Cases are vetted by The Department of Home Affairs, formerly known as the Immigration Department.
One of the last steps is to send ‘Assurance of Support’ (AOS) paperwork to Centrelink. The AOS requires the ‘assurer’, usually the child sponsor, to demonstrate they have a high enough income, and to put down a hefty bank deposit.
They must guarantee they will pay for any social security their parents need during their first 10 years in Australia.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan said the changes “will not be applied retrospectively” and that AOS forms lodged with Centrelink before 1 April will be assessed under the old rules.
But many who have been in the queue for years - those waiting for their case to be vetted by Home Affairs and who are yet to submit their AOS paperwork - will need to meet the new standards.
Jennifer Kwok, a migration agent in Sydney, said she had 60 clients in the “pipeline” who were likely to fail under the new rules.
“I guess none of them meet the requirements,” she said, explaining that most of the sponsor children were young Chinese migrants themselves, still trying to establish careers in Australia.
“My clients are just so scared,” Ms Kwok said.
“Some of them now are panicking and saying: ‘Oh, what should I do?’”
My clients are just so scared.
- Jennifer Kwok, migration agent
Ms Cai said some applicants on the waiting list are now receiving letters from the Department of Home Affairs, after years waiting for a decision, asking them to get their paperwork ready for the AOS.
“The funny thing is, after the requirement of the AOS changed, I received the email from Immigration department saying I can now start preparing all the documentations,” she said.
A letter seen by SBS News asks for the AOS forms to be lodged “within 28 calendar days after you are deemed to have received this letter”.
How have the requirements changed?
The changes mostly affect parent visas.
An individual who wants to sponsor their two parents now needs an annual income of $86,607, up from around $45,000 under the previous rules, while a couple sponsoring two parents now needs a combined income of $115,476.
A single person sponsoring just one parent needs an income of $57,738.
The higher salaries are required for all the main parent visas: both the temporary and permanent versions of the contributory parent visa (143 and 173), the contributory aged parent visa (864 and 884) and the non-contributory parent visa (103 and 804), as well as the ‘remaining relative’ (835) visa.
All the above visas also require a bond from the sponsor and a legal promise to cover any Centrelink costs, but the size of the bond and the duration of the guarantee depend on the visa type.
The non-contributory parent intake has ground to a near-halt, with the department now warning applicants they face a massive wait time of around 30 years for the popular visa.
That’s because sponsors of those visas only need to guarantee two years of welfare and put down a bond of $5,000. But there are only 1,500 places set aside for non-contributory parents this year within Australia’s total migration cap of 190,000 – hence the ballooning queue.
By comparison, there are more than 7,000 places this year for contributory parents, for which sponsors must commit to a 10-year welfare guarantee and a bond of at least $10,000. The current wait time is roughly three years for these visas, not 30.
On 1 July next year, the minimum bonds for the two streams will rise to $7,500 and $15,000 respectively.
Mr Tehan said the government was updating the rules to make sure migrant parents did not become a drain on the welfare system.
“The Australian Government wants to ensure newly arrived migrants have the financial capacity to support themselves, while also ensuring the social security system remains sustainable,” the minister told SBS News in a statement.
The department can also optionally require an AOS guarantee for adoptions, child visas, some orphans and former residents.
Parent visas also require an upfront application fee, which cannot be refunded if the visa is refused.
A spokeswoman for the Home Affairs department told SBS News the no-refunds rule would still apply to families who applied before the changes.
An online government calculator shows a permanent contributory parent visa (143) can cost nearly $4,000 in upfront fees.
Minority communities 'concerned'
Australia’s main industry group for migration agents said the changes would block many applicants already in the pipeline.
A “huge number” of people “will not be able to meet the requirements for currently lodged parent visas,” Kevin Lane, president of the Migration Institute of Australia (MIA), said.
SBS News understands some migration agents are writing to the MIA to coordinate a response and lobby the government to reverse the changes.
An online petition has been set up with more than 9,000 signatures.
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) has been receiving concerned feedback.
“What I’m hearing from communities is that they’re really concerned that the goalposts have changed,” FECCA chair Ms Patetsos said.
She said the minister should “urgently” clarify who would be affected.
Labor accused the government of a “stealth attack on migrant families” but has not committed to reverse the changes.
“In recent days Labor MPs have received many emails from angry families, particularly from Australia’s Chinese community,” the joint media release from shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann and shadow social services minister Jenny Macklin said.
“This is just the latest attempt by the out-of-touch Turnbull Government to make life harder for multicultural communities around Australia.”
The Greens are also opposed to the move.
Relief for lucky few
Migrants still in the department’s vetting ‘pipeline’ will have to face the tougher AOS requirements if and when they are cleared.
But those who already lodged the form with Centrelink before 1 April will only have to meet the old income requirements.
The Department of Human Services confirmed AOS forms handed in before 1 April were “subject to the previous eligibility rules”.
Ms Kwok said her clients who sent in their paperwork just in time “feel so lucky”.
In another subtle change, the AOS rules now ban anyone with a debt to the Commonwealth, like a HECS student debt or a Centrelink debt, from sponsoring a visa.
The department’s spokeswoman confirmed it was currently processing around 2,000 AOS applications.
She said there was “no available data” on how many existing applicants were in debt to the government.
Another way to cut immigration?
The changes come during a fractious internal debate within Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government over Australia’s rate of immigration.
Some Coalition conservatives, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, want a major cut to Australia’s annual intake of 190,000 permanent visas. But the 190,000 figure is a cap, not a target.
In the most recent 2016-17 financial year, the intake dipped to 183,000. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has already hinted the 2017-18 intake would again be “less” than the current cap.
Ms Kwok said she suspected the move was designed to cut back on parent visas.
Signatories on the Change.org petition complained the changes were unfair, especially for existing visa applicants. One accused the Turnbull government of “reducing migrant numbers through a technicality”.
The impact on immigration numbers, if any, may not be clear until future annual reports are released.
The changes also come just weeks before the federal treasurer releases the 2018 Budget. It remains to be seen if the Treasury will write down any savings or loses from the change.
Chinese community feels the sting
The Chinese are the biggest consumers of Australian family visas, according to 2015 immigration data.
More than 11,000 family visas were granted to Chinese citizens that year, compared with around 6,000 for India.
Ms Kwok said about 90 per cent of her clients were Chinese. Many were children of China’s one-child policy and did not have siblings, she said, so they wanted to have their parents in Australia.
“That’s the visa that [lets] the children show they can contribute to the family. Usually it’s the other way, the parents always helping the children,” she said.
“It’s the visa that can link the Chinese family together again, but since these changes, I don’t know.”
For Yi Cai, the young accountant, the changes are personal. She herself was born in the one-child era and has no siblings.
“During my 10 years of life in Australia I've lost three of my grandparents,” she said.
Sponsors can combine incomes to meet the requirement, but only with up to three people. And there’s another catch. The total sum required increases for each sponsor who signs on to the guarantee, to make sure they can support themselves too.