Uncertainty Looming Over NAFTA Professional Visas

By: Norka Lecca

With the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations and the possibility of U.S. withdrawal, the NAFTA professional visa program may be on the chopping block.

NAFTA is a trilateral free trade agreement created to facilitate trade in goods and services between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. On May 18, 2017, President Trump officially notified Congress of his intentions to renegotiate NAFTA. This came as no surprise after President Trump’s critical campaign rhetoric against the trade agreement, dubbing it “the worst trade deal in history.” Seven rounds of negotiations were scheduled in an effort to revise NAFTA. The first round began on August 16, 2017. So far, U.S. demands during the negotiations have taken an “America first” stance, which observers fear may be underestimating the limits of Mexican and Canadian leaders. President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if renegotiations fail, but there has not yet been a submission of the formal six-months’ notice required for withdrawal. On the other hand, the administration has discussed the possibility of imposing a “sunset clause” that could terminate NAFTA after 5 years. U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA would not only have serious repercussions for the American, Canadian, and Mexican economies, but may also have significant implications for professionals from Canada and Mexico working in the U.S. under NAFTA Professional (TN) visas.

In 1993, NAFTA introduced a new nonimmigrant visa classification in an effort to create special economic and trade relationships between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The nonimmigrant NAFTA Professional (TN) visa allows qualified citizens of Canada and Mexico to work in the U.S. as NAFTA professionals in prearranged business activities for U.S. or foreign employers. Appendix 1603.D.1 of the trade agreement lists over 60 types of highly skilled professionals that qualify for this visa, including lawyers, accountants, doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, and many more. As an entry-level requirement, each profession requires a bachelor’s degree. A TN visa is granted for three years and may be renewed for an extended stay. According to the U.S. Department of State, 14,768 TN visas were issued to these professionals in 2016, and 9,762 visas were issued to the derivative spouses and children of these professionals.

The TN visa program plays a valuable role in U.S. efforts to attract and retain highly skilled professionals for hard-to-fill jobs. The tech industry in particular may suffer if the TN visa program is eliminated. Thus far, the TN visa program has attracted Canadian and Mexican software engineers, programmers, scientists, and other highly skilled professionals to work in U.S. tech hubs suffering from a shortage of workers. The growth of tech hubs around the world has led to increased competition for talented individuals. Abolishing the TN visa program may mean risking U.S. competitiveness in the tech industry to countries like Canada and Mexico that have been implementing initiatives to attract and retain tech talent.

The fate of the TN visa program remains uncertain. President Trump has yet to criticize the program directly, but after repeated threats to withdraw from NAFTA and a critical stance on the H-1B visa program (allowing U.S. companies to temporarily employ foreign workers in highly specialized fields), U.S. employers and TN visa holders alike have a reason to be concerned.

The fourth round of NAFTA negotiation talks will begin on October 11, 2017. If officials are unable to make progress this week, the odds of striking a deal may decrease significantly, creating uncertainty about U.S. NAFTA membership and the fate of the TN professional visa program.


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