Borders in Flux: How the NAFTA Debate Could Reshape US-Canada Immigration

The ongoing talks over NAFTA continue to be a fixture of political news. With the Trump administration determined to overhaul decades of US trade policy, political leaders and diplomats remain at odds over what a reformed NAFTA deal should look like – or whether the agreement will even persist at all. With the trade pact potentially under threat, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even embarked on a US speaking tour aimed at making the case for why NAFTA can benefit both Canada and the US. 

Much of the NAFTA news coverage has focused on potential impacts to key industries like agriculture and manufacturing. Yet in addition to trade, the NAFTA dispute carries major implications for another hot-button issue: immigration. A major restructuring – let alone a full dissolution – would cause significant fallout for employment-based immigration between Canada and the US, including a program called the TN visa.

Created by NAFTA in 1994, the TN gives skilled professionals from Mexico and Canada a temporary pathway toward living and working in the United States. Workers from a wide range of industries can benefit from the program, including attorneys, accountants, programmers and more. Because it enables quick, low-cost movement of labor with the possibility of indefinite renewal, the TN has long been a popular option for US firms seeking to hire Canadians. In contrast, other US employment visas like the H1-B are more competitive, have stricter time limits, and require more investment on the part of the employer.

Yet with NAFTA facing significant changes, the TN’s future looks increasingly unclear. If President Trump terminates the deal, TN holders could become unemployed at a moment’s notice, having lost the right to work in the States. Not surprisingly, some Canadian TN holders have already started returning to Canada, seeking a greater degree of security. The confusion could also deter American companies from hiring Canadians in the first place, says Canadian immigration attorney Ilene Solomon.

“The uncertainty is definitely having a cooling effect on the cross-border mobility that we’re used to,” Solomon says.

In fact, the Trump administration’s stiffer immigration stance has already made the current TN process less predictable for applicants, with border entry having become more challenging. “We’re seeing a much higher level of scrutiny,” says Paul Altmann, an immigration lawyer with our firm, D’Alessio Law Group. “Border officers have gotten much stricter about the kinds of documents they’ll accept, particularly with the TN.”

The potential impacts to labor mobility also flow in the other direction. Canada currently offers a NAFTA Work Permit that serves as a counterpart to the TN, letting Mexican and American nationals enter the country to work. Many Canadian industries rely on the permit to bring in US specialists, a valuable resource given America’s large population and talent pool.

Without a pathway geared toward US nationals, however, these candidates would instead follow the same process as potential temporary workers from other countries, forcing them to compete with a much larger applicant pool. This could then reduce their odds of approval, making it harder for Canadian companies to hire such workers. 

For these reasons, a removal of the NAFTA permit would represent a substantial loss for Canada, particularly in sectors like tech. Experts have argued the permit’s demise could particularly hurt certain Canadian employers who need to quickly bring over IT workers from the US, including those in tech-heavy cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Even if NAFTA doesn’t survive the current talks, cross-border employment could still take place quickly and smoothly. The US and Canada would simply need to negotiate new visas that offer the same provisions, just outside of a trade-based framework. In the meantime, both countries could extend a grace period to existing visa holders whose permits were nullified by NAFTA’s demise. Given the longstanding ties between the two countries, it seems politicians from both sides of the border would have incentives to find a solution.

All bets are off, however, especially with President Trump intent on reducing immigration across the board. Given the administration’s aggressive stance on both immigration and trade, as well as its push toward “Buy American, Hire American” policies, the future of US-Canadian border mobility remains very much in flux.


D’Alessio Law Group is a global law firm serving technology, entertainment, and corporate clients worldwide. With specialties in immigration and corporate practice, D’Alessio Law Group cuts through legal complexities so clients can thrive and succeed. The firm is headquartered in Los Angeles, with additional offices in Toronto, San Jose, London and Miami. To learn more, visit www.dalessiolawgroup.com or call (310) 909-3934.


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