The Mexican and Canadian governments are pushing the White House to step up the North American Free Trade Agreement’s renegotiation pace and to conclude talks in May. Dubbed NAFTA 2.0, President Trump must proceed cautiously lest he open up the U.S. labor market to a new flood of employment-authorized visa holders.
NAFTA, which went into force on January 1, 1994, created the Treaty NAFTA (TN) visa, a nonimmigrant temporary employment-based visa through which an unlimited inflow of allegedly high-skilled workers can legally enter the U.S. The TN is valid for a not-so-temporary three years, and renewable indefinitely.
TN visas are part of a much larger group of employment-based visas like the H-1B, J-1, L-1 and Optional Practical Training (OPT) that, in the aggregate, have paved the way for hundreds of thousands of overseas workers to displace Americans.
Since NAFTA is a congressionally approved treaty, the TN visa is beyond the Department of Homeland Security’s purview, meaning U.S. officials have no vetting authority. The definition of high-skill is, as visa critics point out, often liberally interpreted to the detriment of American workers. And Congress hasn’t authorized an analysis that would review the TN’s effect on American workers and industries.
The problem of the ever-increasing arrival of foreign-born workers on the TN and other visas poses important questions about national sovereignty. According to the Congressional Research Service, foreign nationals can enter the U.S. on 24 major nonimmigrant visa categories, and more than 70 specific types of nonimmigrant visas are currently issued. Many of these visa categories are employment-based. Others that don’t provide legal work authorization, like the B-1 temporary business visitor visa, have been unscrupulously used by employers and their subcontractors for hiring purposes.
Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley has grave concerns about the effect more TN visas would have on American workers. In his letter to U.S. Representative Robert Lighthizer, President Trump’s chief NAFTA 2.0 negotiator Grassley, citing a State Department report, wrote that in 2016, 14,768 TN visas were issued along with 9,762 TD visas for spouses and children. In 2015, another 13,093 were approved, and in 2014, yet another 11,207. For the three-year period, Grassley pointed out, a total of 39,068 TN visas had been issued, mostly to Mexican workers. While Canadian workers aren’t required to formally apply for a TN, an estimated 100,000 Canadian nationals work in the U.S.
Grassley asked that Lighthizer evaluate whether the admittance of unlimited temporary workers under a multinational trade agreement, as opposed to through existing statutory and regulatory frameworks that the State, Homeland Security and Labor Departments have established for other worker visa categories, serves America’s best interests. But since Congress stubbornly refuses to evaluate the H-1B’s consequences on the American labor force, Grassley is unlikely to have his wish for a TN review granted, especially since the pro-immigration lobby, big business and Wall Street endorse the TN.
At different times during the NAFTA 2.0 talks, President Trump has said that in exchange for any deal he might agree to, Mexico must help to stop drug trafficking and to stem illegal immigration. But the president said nothing about TN visas. Most Americans know that millions of illegal immigrants, either border crossers or visa overstays, live in the U.S. But only a microscopic percentage could talk knowledgably about employment visa categories and the harm they do to the domestic labor market.
During the NAFTA 2.0 conversations, more critical focus should be put on excessive visa issuance and its consequences on U.S. workers.