One night in April this year, Sarvesh Soni logged onto his computer and filed an application for he and his four-year-old daughter Joey to obtain Australian citizenship. Early the next day, his wife, Sampa Sarkar, submitted hers.
That same morning, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced retrospective changes to the nation’s citizenship laws, a move that has left the family of three in bureaucratic limbo. Until this week.
“I applied at about 10pm on the 19th of April. I then got a letter from the department that my citizenship test appointment was on the 28th of September,” Dr Soni told The New Daily.
“I presented for the test, passed it, and then my application was approved on the 6th of October. I got the letter of approval at home on the 13th of October.
“My wife only applied 10 or 12 hours after I did. Her application is still on hold.”
On Wednesday, Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team killed off a bill in the Senate that would have introduced a new English test and a longer wait time for prospective citizens.
With the bill defeated, Mr Dutton confirmed on Thursday that applications filed on or after April 20 would now be processed under the existing laws.
“We are in love with Australia, that’s why we are here,” said Dr Soni, a university researcher in Melbourne.
“We will still love it, but this experience gave us a sense of separation.”
Despite Wednesday’s welcome news, some separation is still likely for the couple, who are originally from India and have held permanent residency here since 2014.
In a few months, Dr Soni and Joey will become fully fledged citizens by pledging allegiance to Australia at a local council ceremony. Dr Sarkar will have to hold on a little longer for the same opportunity.
But the family is counting its blessings. If the proposed changes had passed the Senate, Dr Sarkar would have had to wait until September next year just to re-submit her application.
From there, the entire process is usually complete within 14 months, according to the department.
“Sometimes, on a lighter note, she says to me, ‘The Australian government wants you to be an Australian citizen because you applied eight hours before me’,” Dr Soni said. “‘The Australian government wants me to integrate more, because of a difference of eight hours’. It is really strange.”
Changes are ‘sensible’: Dutton
Mr Dutton vowed on Thursday to keep pursuing the changes, saying most Australians would be “shaking their heads” at Labor’s opposition to the bill.
“Our argument is that these changes were sensible, because we are asking people not only to abide by Australian laws but to adhere to Australian values and we have put forward some sensible amendments,” he said.
He would continue to negotiate with the Senate crossbench and had already offered to reduce the difficulty of the English language test, among other concessions.
If the amended version passes, it would come into effect next July rather than act retrospectively. But the government needs the support of Nick Xenophon Team, which has said it will not support the changes.
Opposition citizenship spokesman Tony Burke hailed the outcome, saying that policy had hallmarks of the White Australia policy.
Mr Dutton said those comments were “over the top”.
Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim said it was “a great day for multiculturalism in this country”.
Dr Soni said he had learned that “things could change in one night for us migrants”.
“It’s the first time I’ve felt that kind of fear in my heart.”