Sen. Grassley Proposes Limiting TN Visas Through NAFTA Negotiations

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer October 31, 2017

A Republican senator asked the Trump administration to take advantage of ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations to set limits on the currently uncapped TN guest worker visas available to Canadian and Mexican nationals.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in a letter to consider renegotiating the guest worker provisions of NAFTA as part of any broader examination of the treaty, referring to the visa program as a vehicle for employers to import "cheap foreign labor" into the United States.

"I write to express ongoing concerns regarding the uncapped TN classification … that permits Mexican and Canadian nationals to take high-paying professional jobs in the United States," he wrote. "I believe that it would be a mistake to essentially renew the TN temporary worker visa category, without considering the broader implications for the current U.S. economy."

The TN visa was created in 1993 with the signing of NAFTA to enable professionals in over 60 occupations from Canada and Mexico to work in the United States more freely. Recipients of TN visas are granted a three-year stay, with no limit on renewals.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 14,768 TN visas were issued in 2016, with an additional 9,762 being issued to spouses and children of these workers.

"Unlike other high-skilled visa programs, like H-1B, there is no impact or labor analysis to determine the effect such visa recipients may have on American workers and industries," Grassley wrote. "It is estimated that almost 100,000 TN visa holders are working in the United States, in professions ranging from doctors and lawyers to interior designers, librarians and beekeepers."

A Different View

NAFTA's cross-border mobility provisions "benefit both U.S. employers by creating more timely pathways for mobility and U.S. workers by enabling them to pursue professional opportunities throughout North America," said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the Council for Global Immigration, an advocacy organization supporting workforce mobility and employment-based immigration based in Alexandria, Va., and an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management.

The treaty's implementation of permissive temporary entry policies for workers and business travelers has boosted economic growth and expanded the talent pool available to employers in all three countries, agreed Stephen Cryne, president and CEO of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC), a Toronto-based organization representing the workforce mobility interests of Canada's largest employers. 

"The overall impact of the rules of temporary entry have delivered tremendous benefits to the businesses and economies in both countries," he said. "While much emphasis is placed on the movement of physical goods, which account for the majority of trade, there is significant growth in the trade in services between Canada and the U.S., which relies on the free movement of business executives and professionals. Virtually all sectors of the economy have benefited, particularly those with operations on both sides of the border."

Cryne said that while he was not surprised to read the contents of Grassley's letter, he was disappointed "that the conclusions were not entirely correct."

He pointed out that TN visas go to people needed for highly skilled in-demand occupations. "For example, the hundreds of nurses working at the Ford Hospital in Detroit—filling a critical need, not taking away jobs away from Americans."

He added that, contrary to Grassley's assertions, these skilled workers create thousands of spin-off jobs.

The Trump administration did not bring up labor mobility when the U.S. released its objectives for NAFTA negotiations in July. Nor has it been identified as an area that the U.S. wants to go into. "It's difficult to speculate on what may happen with the labor mobility issues, given the overall direction of the discussions at this point," Cryne said.

Shotwell said that while she believes that the existing mobility provisions linked to the TN visa program should be retained, there are areas to improve. "We recognize that the TN professionals list is outdated and that the negotiations provide an opportunity to modernize it. We would like to see the list revamped, as our survey shows that 56 percent of employers have positions that are not reflected on the list."

CFGI has also advocated for additional provisions to increase the efficiency and predictability of cross-border mobility.

But Shotwell reminded that "Over the past decade, Congress has been very clear that they do not want the U.S. Trade Representative to negotiate provisions impacting our immigration laws in trade agreements."

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