The family of autistic child Arianna Alfonzo, 12, is fighting for a New Zealand residency visa. Video / Arianna Gail Alfonzo
A 12-year-old Filipina who has been banned from moving to New Zealand because of her autism – despite both parents already having residency – has come to the attention of a high-profile disability rights campaigner and an outspoken MP on immigration issues.
Now, with their help, thousands of people are requesting the annulment of the decision.
For half her life, Arianna Alfonzo lived about 7800 km from her father, a construction worker in Auckland.
“It’s been very difficult for us,” said her mother, Gail Alfonzo, who stayed with Arianna overseas to care for her. “She needs both of her parents.”
Arianna was denied a visitor’s visa in 2018 after being found not to have met “acceptable health standards”, an immigration policy that considers whether a person would cost special education systems more than $41,000 or health of the country.
With the help of Green Party MP Ricardo Menéndez March, the family sought a reprieve late last year from Associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford. There have been other cases in which families with autistic children were initially refused a visa but later granted an exception, Menéndez March noted to his parliament colleague in the November 16 letter.
“You don’t have to attract media attention to get a correct and just result,” he wrote.
Twyford’s office responded last month with a four-sentence letter.
“I have carefully reviewed your representations,” Twyford wrote. “I specify that I am not ready to intervene in this matter.”
The Herald approached Twyford’s desk for a comment. A spokesman for the Associate Minister said he would not discuss individual cases.
Two cases, similar fights
Twyford’s response to the exception request infuriated Juliana Carvalho, who fought her own years-long battle for residency after being initially rejected on similar grounds.
“I wonder what level of preparation it takes to hold a pen and sign a paper,” she wrote on her Change.org petition on behalf of the Alfonzo family, titled #LetAriannaStayNZ. “I wonder what kind of preparation is needed to stop violating this child’s basic human rights. I wonder what kind of preparation he needs to have empathy for this family.”
Carvalho, who suffers from lupus and is a paraplegic, moved from Brazil to New Zealand on a student visa in 2012 after visiting siblings who had already immigrated. She “fell in love” with the country, she previously said. But in 2015, after applying for residency, it was found that she did not meet acceptable health clause standards and she was rejected.
It took five years of appeals before a request for ministerial intervention in 2020 resulted in his residency.
She described the ’emotional toll of trying to prove you add value’ as ‘the worst thing that’s happened to my life’ – a huge hit to her self-esteem even though she’s had a stable job, plays wheelchair rugby, drives his own car and does not receive regular personal care.
“To be told repeatedly that you are a burden, that you add no value – it can make you believe,” she said. “I don’t want anyone else to go through this. I don’t want anyone else to feel the pain that I felt, the humiliation.
“This policy, it is ruining people’s lives.”
Carvalho befriended the Alfonzo family and later became their vocal spokesperson, after Arianna’s mother read Carvalho’s campaign for the residency and contacted her online.
“I think they really deserve a break,” Carvalho said. “We have no other choice for this family. We must keep fighting until the minister gets a bloody pen and signs the paper.”
But the Alfonzos are far from the only family to have faced a similar situation, Carvalho said, saying the whole system needed reform.
The #LetAriannaStayNZ petition, which has garnered over 2,150 signatures so far, follows a petition of almost 35,000 signatures that Carvalho submitted to Parliament last year.
In it, Carvalho called on the government to “end systemic discrimination in immigration systems by complying with [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” which she noted New Zealand signed 14 years ago.
“She wants immigration policy to be considered within a welfare framework, centered on the lived experiences of immigrants with disabilities and informed by manaaki (hospitality), utu (mutuality) and aroha (love),” the committee said. Education Workforce bipartisan about the petition in a report released in December.
“She wants visa applicants to be assessed on their contributions to society, their skills and their family ties, not on their potential costs for health and education services.”
The report notes that the Department for Business, Innovation and Jobs, which oversees Immigration NZ, believes the current health settings are appropriate. The ministry pointed to kidney and residential care as examples of services already under pressure.
The Immigration and Protection Tribunal recently ruled that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “does not impose an obligation” to grant residency to persons with disabilities “that may impede their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
But the committee’s report also noted that the Office of Disability Issues has described the link between disability and monetary cost as a “deficit-based approach” which is inconsistent with New Zealand’s disability strategy. Rejecting a child’s visa application while accepting that of other family members creates an unenviable situation, the agency suggested.
The committee, chaired by Labor MP Marja Lubeck, concluded that some of Carvalho’s proposals could be of interest.
“We recommend that the acceptable health standard, which is used by Immigration New Zealand to inform its decision-making on applications, be reviewed so that health requirements are aligned with a strengths-based approach to disabilities and select only the most serious health issues,” he suggested, thanking Carvalho for his “deeply personal” advocacy and observations.
The government has taken a different approach.
New threshold, same system
Immigration issues, the government noted last month in its response to Carvalho’s petition, are “inherently discriminatory because individuals will have to be treated according to their personal characteristics.”
While the government values the contributions of people with disabilities to New Zealand society, the current immigration health metrics are appropriate as they focus on public health impacts, the four-page response notes.
“The government considers it necessary to retain these parameters to ensure that we do not have a significant impact on New Zealanders in the long term.”
The government has admitted that the current $41,000 limit for potential system loads caused by a claimant’s medical conditions may need to be reassessed.
“The review is likely to find that the $41,000 threshold, which was set 10 years ago, no longer reflects what a high-cost medical condition currently looks like,” the response noted, adding that it the examination is unlikely to “significantly change the screening”. terms”.
“Some conditions are likely to always remain a barrier to achieving an acceptable level of health due to their cost and/or demand on limited resources, e.g. need for cochlear implants, students requiring program funding ongoing resources, conditions that require care in community/residential care, and medical conditions that require treatment with expensive drugs.”
This is not enough, argued Menéndez March, who is the Green Party’s immigration critic. The whole policy needs an overhaul, starting with adopting the approach recommended by the all-party Education Workforce Committee, he told the Herald while discussing the case of the Alfonzo family.
“We’ve been very clear that this policy borders on modern eugenics,” he said, adding that immigrants with disabilities shouldn’t have to seek help from MPs or the media to justify their value to the society. “It’s a deeply dehumanizing process.”
Although he said he shouldn’t have to fight individual cases at all, he’s surprised no exceptions were made for Arianna.
“We’re not giving up,” he said. “I hope the minister sees the incredible potential of bringing this family together.”
“A Complete Family”
Gail Alfonzo accepted.
Despite spending thousands of dollars on legal fees and specialist medical reports, she and her husband still believe in the compassion of New Zealanders, she told the Herald in a video call from the Philippines.
She described New Zealand as a “family country”, which has benefited from her husband’s hard work for six years and could also benefit from his contributions to the economy.
Her daughter, she says, is her “blessing” whose bright smile leaves an impression on everyone.
“Arianna is a happy child like any other child in the world, she loves going to school, meeting people and seeing different places,” Gail Alfonzo wrote on the petition. “Like any other child, Arianna deserves to live with dignity and to be treated fairly.
“Arianna deserved to have a complete and happy family.”