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NAFTA talks leave some Canadians working in the U.S. uncertain about their jobs

Canadian citizens on TN work visas in the U.S. could be affected by NAFTA negotiations. Getty Images

Living and working in the United States gave Jo-Anne Beggs an experience that she may not have had in Canada.

The Ontario woman worked in New York as a social worker and trauma therapist. At the clinic, she says she was able to learn different ways of treating mental illnesses that weren’t yet available in Canada.

“It gave me a lot of opportunities for training in my profession,” Beggs told Global News.

Jo-Anne Beggs lived in the United States under a TN visa. Courtesy Jo-Anne Beggs

It was possible because of the non-immigrant NAFTA Professional (TN) visa. It’s a temporary, three-year work permit given to citizens of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico for certain jobs.

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Now, with the trade agreement under the microscope — and U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly threatening to dismantle the whole thing — the visa’s future is uncertain.

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Perks of the TN visa

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo explained that the TN visa was put in place to facilitate “fast-pace movement” across the border.

The visa has been available since the multinational trade agreement was created. Since then, citizens of the three countries have had a slightly easier time moving across borders for work.

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But the visa only applies to some career fields, and to those who have already been offered a job (self-employment doesn’t apply).

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Canadians seeking to enter the U.S. under a TN visa need to provide three documents: a passport, proof of employment, and if applicable, proof of credentials.

Which jobs does it apply to?

The visa generally applies to professionals who have some level of advanced education. For example accountants, engineers, lawyers, librarians, health-care professionals, scientists and teachers.

Bellissimo explained that in many cases the “specialized services” eligible for the work permit need fast access to neighbouring countries.

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“The practical reality is that system requires that type of flexibility,” he noted, indicating that a high number of professionals cross borders for work.

Immigration attorney Julie Kruger added that there is no limit on the number of TN visas issued each year, it has same-day processing, and only costs about $50.

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And it’s an option that’s commonly used. It was the most common temporary worker visa used for entry to the U.S. in 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Here is a full list of the careers listed under the TN visa.

Threatened under NAFTA negotiations

If the TN visa is cut as a result of the NAFTA negotiations, Bellissimo says there needs to be a replacement.

“I don’t think either country would suspend this without something else in place,” he added.

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But he said that it is possible that the visa becomes an unintended victim of the trade deal’s overhaul.

“Reconsidering something this size and scope is a very big undertaking,” the lawyer said. “The chance of something falling through the cracks are high.”

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Kruger says she has encountered clients who are concerned that their TN visas will be cancelled if NAFTA is revoked. But there’s also speculation the provisions will be changed — and that could be a good thing.

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“There is an opportunity for an expansion. Some of the provisions are a bit outdated,” Kruger said, explaining that the jobs list could be modernized to include new fields and scrap some obsolete ones.

Other visa options

Kruger noted that Canadians have more than one option when it comes to work permits for the U.S.  For example, they can look into the L-1 and E-2 visas. 

Some Canadians may also have American family members willing to sponsor them.

“Each situation would be unique,” Kruger explained.

Imperfect system

While the TN visa is commonly used by Canadians, it does have its flaws.

Beggs has been back in Canada for about four years, and it was the uncertainty of the TN visa that drove her back home.

“I developed a wonderful life there,” she explains.

Beggs renewed her TN visa several times after moving to the U.S. in 1998, but she never knew when it would be rejected. Some years it was easily done, others it was difficult.

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Getting permanent residency through a green card, though more stable, is a longer and more complicated process. As a social worker, she says the chances of her application being accepted were low.

And as a member of the LGBTQ community, marrying was unlikely to help.

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Now, Beggs and her wife live in Mississauga, Ont., and she’s grateful she left before the uncertainty surrounding the visa worsened.

“I have to say that I’m so happy that I decided to come home when I did. If I was still there I would have been terrified.”

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