It is nothing short of a Christmas miracle for the Santos family, whose planned deportation on Christmas Day has been stopped thanks to a last-minute ministerial intervention granting them the right to stay for another year.
Jeffrey Santos, his wife Marjorie and their son James were due to fly back to Pampanga, in the Philippines, at Christmas. The Cromwell-based family had been served with a deportation order after Jeffrey's sheer desperation during the first Covid-19 lockdown saw him falsify his address to get $1600 worth of food vouchers.
“I couldn’t abandon my family. They were hungry,” the 32-year-old told 1News in Tagalog, which has been translated for this story. But he accepted early on that what he did was wrong. He plead guilty in court, paid back the money and did 150 hours of court-ordered community service.
“I’m asking for a lot of forgiveness for my wrongdoing. I know that it was wrong, it was very wrong. But I risked my life [here] so I could feed my family,” he said. “I won’t hide from it, I’ll face it, because I did it so thank you for giving me a second chance.”
Friday's second chance granted after the Associate Minister for Immigration, Phil Twyford, gave him a character waiver, enabling him to stay here for another 12 months on an open work visa – essentially overriding the Immigration New Zealand deportation order.
It follows months of stress and uncertainty for the Santos family, with the carpenter seeing his salary halved in the first 2020 lockdown. But unlike residents or citizens, he was ineligible for any Government hardship grants at the time. Additional support for temporary migrants only came several months later.
Immigration lawyer Pooja Sundar says those on temporary visas who are charged with a criminal offence face a very low threshold for deportation. She says no conviction is needed and at times, all it takes is a charge that the person may or may not be guilty of.
But she says discretion can be applied.
“I think it’s worth them looking into each and every case, and determining whether they want to exercise that discretion or not.”
Ricardo Menéndez March, the Green Party spokesperson for immigration, is one of those who’d been petitioning Twyford and Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi for a stay on the deportation order.
He says it's welcome news, but something that shouldn’t have been so hard.
He says migrants, especially those on temporary visas, have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
“What the Santos family had gone through was something that many families went through during the pandemic, which was being put in an impossible situation; which is to allow your family to starve or basically be criminalised," he said.
The Santos’ have been supported by the wider Filipino community, including their lawyer, Maricel Weischede, and Migrante Aotearoa’s Mikee Santos, no relation to the Santos family. Both say deportation to a country where Covid-19 cases are high and job prospects are few is a punishment that seems disproportionate to the crime.
Weishede says Friday's happy news came as a relief.
“I went to bed last night actually feeling down. I posted a long rant in my Facebook page saying it’s so hard to be poor.”
She says the story of the couple who fled to Queenstown earlier this year to evade Auckland's lockdown – which saw one fined $500 and the other discharged without conviction – highlights the “unfairness of life” for those who have limited means.
Mikee says for many migrants, they aren’t just looking after family here, but also family back home.
“While the pandemic ravaged the communities, most migrants lost their jobs already,” he said. “Migrants don’t have money in the bank – they send money home to their families, their siblings, their loved ones.”
He says the emergency support for those on temporary visas who were struggling came too little, too late for many.
Santos knows this second chance at a life in New Zealand is rare – and is one that is unlikely to happen again.
“I will hold onto this second chance that’s been given to me,” he said. “ I won’t disappoint. I’ll say it myself; if I do wrong, I’ll go straight to the airport to go home to the Philippines. No need to deport me.”