Students ask ACT government for fairness over visa changes
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Students ask ACT government for fairness over visa changes

About 200 students gathered at the Legislative Assembly on Friday afternoon, pleading with the ACT government for transparency and fairness over changes in the territory-nominated visa program.

International students who were close to meeting the requirements to apply for the visa told the crowd of the effort they had made to call Canberra home, asking to still be given the chance to apply.

International students protest outside the Legislative Assembly against changes to the ACT government's visa program.

International students protest outside the Legislative Assembly against changes to the ACT government's visa program.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Like other states and territories, the ACT can sponsor potential migrants for permanent residency in Australia, if they fulfil criteria like having a profession in demand in that jurisdiction. Until recently, the ACT also offered the chance to apply for a visa to those who could prove they were skilled and had a close connection to Canberra, even if they didn't work in an area explicitly needed in the ACT.

The program was partially closed on June 29, with the government no longer accepting applications for nomination from most categories of applicants.

Many of the students present had moved to the ACT in hopes of applying for the visa, and felt betrayed by the government, which they believed encouraged them to come and live and invest in Canberra knowing they hoped to become permanent residents.

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Senior lawyer at VisAustralia Nicholas Houston said the ACT government had targeted students and encouraged them to move to the capital.

"When the ACT government set its nomination policy it deliberately created a link between coming to Canberra to study for 12 months for accessing that nomination. It did this to attract international students to Canberra and the spending that you generate," Mr Houston said.

A sign at the protest.

A sign at the protest.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Yessesmin Gonzalez, originally from Mexico, but living in Canberra for more than two years, said she and her husband hoped to have a family in Canberra.

"Many people here are not just looking for the benefits Australia gives, we are people who want to contribute to the society. We are professionals, we want to invest, create and innovate here," Ms Gonzalez said.

One student said he left Columbia on June 28 to come to Canberra and study a Diploma of Leadership and Management at CIT, but by the time he landed on June 30, the chance to apply had closed. Another described working as an Uber driver to make ends meet, trying to prevent drunk passengers vomiting in his car after being picked up at Mooseheads.

Yessesmin Gonzalez told the protest she has lived in Canberra for more than two years and just wants the chance to apply for a visa.

Yessesmin Gonzalez told the protest she has lived in Canberra for more than two years and just wants the chance to apply for a visa.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

The Canberra Liberals' spokeswoman for multicultural affairs Elizabeth Kikkert received a petition from the students with around 2000 signatures. It asked for those who were already enrolled in an eligible course on June 29 to still be able to apply under the rules in place at that time, and for the Department of Home Affairs to allocate an extra 1500 places to the program.

Ms Kikkert committed to working with the government to help the students apply for visas.

"No one is trying to bully the government into granting visas they don't want to grant, no one is trying to bully the government into changing the law," Mr Houston said.

On Thursday the ACT government committed to consult with stakeholders as it developed its new strategy to manage the program, and to release a discussion paper in September. A government spokeswoman said the new strategy would be released by December 1.