Trump works to cut high-skilled visas in NAFTA deal

Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, looks on as President Donald Trumps signs executive orders at the White House on Jan. 23, 2018. A former steel industry lawyer who witnessed that sector’s decline, Lighthizer has spent decades preparing for the global trade war that Trump has threatened to launch. The policies are designed to help U.S. steel makers, like a proposed mini steel mill in Homestead.
Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, looks on as President Donald Trumps signs executive orders at the White House on Jan. 23, 2018. A former steel industry lawyer who witnessed that sector’s decline, Lighthizer has spent decades preparing for the global trade war that Trump has threatened to launch. The policies are designed to help U.S. steel makers, like a proposed mini steel mill in Homestead. NYT

The Trump administration is working to slash the number of visas granted to Canadian and Mexican professionals as part of ongoing NAFTA negotiations among the three countries.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is leading the push as part of President Donald Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” initiative promised during the 2016 campaign.

The administration wants to limit the number of eligible professions and decrease the number of visa renewals of Treaty NAFTA , or TN, visas as the countries renegotiate the 1994 trade deal. Trump, who has forced the renegotiation, has threatened to scrap it unless it addresses the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico.

“At the negotiating table, the U.S. statements have been basically, ‘Look, we want to scale this back, we don’t want to agree to expand it (visas),’" said Eric Miller, a trade consultant who has worked for the Canadian government and continues to advise them on the negotiations.

The discussions over the visas are continuing even though Congress passed a bill in 2016 barring any administration from trying to change the number of visas granted to a country as part of trade negotiations, after past presidents did just that.

Some people on Capitol Hill who have studied the 2016 law’s language say the administration can work around it by modifying the existing trade agreement instead of writing a new one.

Lawmakers will have final approval anyway because Congress must ratify any new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Negotiators from the United States, Canada and Mexico missed an informal deadline last week set by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. to complete talks to allow lawmakers to vote on a new treaty this year. Talks continue, but it's highly unlikely now that Congress will consider the treaty this year, given their schedule and the upcoming midterm elections.

Fewer 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 the State Department. No statistics are kept for Canadians, who have a lower bar to meet and can seek the visas when they arrive at the border. But some Canadian reports have put the number in the tens of thousands.

Those who favor restricting immigration argue the program could trigger a flood of immigrants in the United States because there are no limits to the number of visas or renewals.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, urged Lighthizer to reduce the number of TN visas, estimating the number could approach 100,000.

“Although I recognize there are risks to reopening negotiations regarding any treaty provision, 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,” he wrote in a letter in October.

The number of TN visa workers in the U.S. has grown in recent years as the program has become more attractive. In 2008, the length of stay was increased from one year to three, making it an appealing alternative to other high-skilled visas. Approved occupations for the TN visa include accountants, hotel managers, land surveyors, nutritionists, engineers and computer systems analysts.

"It’s one of these secrets in immigration law that people only recently discovered," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

Congress is already debating whether the U.S. economy needs more foreign high-skilled workers.

"It is in our national interest to bring the best and brightest minds from around the world to work in America, create companies in America, and create jobs for American workers,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who represents Silicon Valley, said. “While some programs are in need of reform, simply reducing the number of visas available does little to benefit our nation.”

Groups that want to restrict immigration, including NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform, are lobbying the Trump administration to cut the number of visas.

Chris Chmielenski, Number's USA director of content and activism, said the group launched a social media campaign last month because even though the TN visa is limited to three years, the renewals are uncapped.

FAIR wrote to Lighthizer in March urging him to come to an agreement that is in line with the Trump's views on immigration.

"Admitting an unlimited number of temporary foreign workers under a multinational trade agreement — as opposed to through existing statutory and regulatory frameworks — completely undermines the Trump administration’s agenda of ending immigration abuses and protecting American workers," said RJ Hauman, FAIR's government relations director.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from NAFTA unless Mexico helps halt the flow of undocumented immigrants who cross the border into the United States.

“Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S.,” Trump tweeted April 1. “They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL!”

The 2016 law passed after it became common for administration officials to include provisions to increase the number of foreign professional guest workers in trade agreements. In 2003, President George W. Bush's administration included temporary visas from Chile and Singapore in its trade pacts despite congressional opposition. But Congress had to ratify the treaty as a whole without being able to change pieces of it.

Still, Rep. Steve King, who introduced the 2016 bill and wants to reduce the number of immigrants in the U.S., warned the Trump administration not to meddle in immigration issues as part of NAFTA.

“It is important to ensure that the Article I Constitutional authority given to the United States Congress alone to establish immigration law is respected through the renegotiation,” King wrote to Lighthizer in a letter in October.

The failure to complete the deal by Ryan's deadline is a setback for Trump, who promised to scrap NAFTA and replace it with something better.

But Mexico and Canada have proven formidable negotiators. Canada has pushed back against the administration’s efforts to curtail TN visas, arguing that it’s important that highly skilled professionals are located where they can find jobs. Instead, it has pushed to expand the list of professionals that qualify.

"The TN visa has been absolutely essential for filling critical labor needs in both United States and Canada," said Leon Fresco, who represents TN visa holders from Canada. "If it were to be revoked, there would be extreme disruptions to multiple fortune 500 companies in both countries."

Miller said Canadians have been largely happy with NAFTA, but didn’t want to negotiate without their own requests. Expanding the list of professions covered by the visas was one of two key goals along with adjusting limits on the amount of materials Canada must buy from the U.S.

Now that negotiations have hit a snag, Canadian negotiators see an opportunity to maintain the status quo — or perhaps change a few categories.

“You don’t want to go into a negotiation where the other guy is asking for 115 things and you’re asking for nothing,” Miller said.

While answering questions from reporters during a news conference on April 3, 2018, President Trump briefly discussed the border wall with Mexico and NAFTA renegotiations.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01