Despite vows to slash the program, the Trump administration on Monday agreed to allow tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of Canadian engineers, doctors and nurses who come to work in the United States to keep their visas as part of the new U.S. trade pact with Canada and Mexico, according to senior administration officials.
It’s a bit of a political concession for President Donald Trump, whose administration called for limits on visa renewals of TN (Treaty NAFTA) visas as part of his “Buy American, Hire American” initiative. While the agreement didn’t include such limits, the administration said Canada was unsuccessful in expanding the controversial program.
“On the question of visas, we have retained existing NAFTA language on that, but not gone beyond it,” said a senior administration official.
The agreement reached Sunday with Canada follows a similar deal reached earlier with Mexico officials, who told McClatchy that TN visas would remain apart of the revised agreement.
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Trump has long criticized NAFTA as perhaps the worst deal ever made, often threatening to rip it up and upend billions of dollars of cross-border trade. That stance put some congressional Republicans in a tough position heading into the midterms, since they represent districts with significant stakes in commerce with Canada and Mexico.
On Monday, the White House held a Rose Garden ceremony that sought to portray the newly minted United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, or USMCA, as a “promise delivered.” Trump described the new agreement as fair to all sides and puts the United States in a position of strength that its never been in before.
“The agreement will govern nearly $1.2 trillion in trade, which makes it the biggest trade deal in United States history,” Trump said.
Less than 25,000 TN visas were issued for Mexicans in 2016, including about 10,000 for family members of the TN visa recipients, according to State Department records. No statistics are kept for Canadians, who have a lower bar to obtain such visas and can seek them when they arrive at the border.
While keeping the visas is a win for the Canadian officials, it’s also a bit of a political loss for them as well as some high tech workers and union leaders sought to modernize the agreement to include more workers.
“If you’re on the list, its survival is very good news for you,” said Eric Miller, a trade consultant who has worked for the Canadian government and continues to advise them on the negotiations. ”If you were not on the list and hoping to get on the list, today is a big disappointment.”
It’s also a setback for groups like NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform that have been lobbying the Trump administration to cut the number of visas. Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limiting the number of TN visas, saw keeping TN visas intact as “missed an opportunity.”
While the pact does not expand the scope of the program, the bad news, she said, is the administration failed to “ditch this unnecessary guest worker program that for too many years has flown under the radar.”
“The government can’t even tell how many people enter on TN visas, much less what kind of jobs they are filling or who is employing them,” Vaughan added. “Guest worker programs do not belong in trade agreements, period, because we give up control of them to an international bureaucracy, not Congress. U.S. jobs should not be a bargaining chip in trade agreements.”
In recent years, the number of TN visa workers in the U.S. has grown as more people have learned of the program. Since 2008, when the length of stay was increased from one year to three, some groups looked to TN visas as an alternative to other high-skilled visa programs.
Canadians using the program include doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, hotel managers, land surveyors, nutritionists and computer systems analysts.
Leon Fresco, a former Justice Department official who now represents TN visa holders from Canada and Mexico, called Monday an important day for North American relations, emphasizing that the economies of the three nations are more integrated than many realize.
“The Canadians and Mexicans are also winners by keeping the TN-visa in existence in its current form, which allows their companies to have much-needed presence in the United States and allows mobility of workers across the continent,” Fresco said.