The North America Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, has been constantly in the news for the past year. Canada, the US and Mexico have been renegotiating the trade agreement that came into force in January 1994. While there have been changes and updates to NAFTA over the past three decades, from the sound of things the current negotiations will likely lead to major changes.
As a trade agreement, NAFTA contains provisions related to trade between these three countries, but it also includes provisions that allow citizens of the countries to work in any of the other three countries. The goal of these provisions was to make the flow of workers easier and thereby facilitate trade between the three countries. For example, based on the latest figures available, in 2016 Canada granted work permits to 17,602 Americans and 691 Mexicans under NAFTA professional provisions. In the same year, the US issued 14,768 NAFTA professional visas to Canadians and Mexicans.
NAFTA has a number of provisions that allow for the movement of people including Intracompany Transfers, Treaty Traders or Investors as well as educated professionals. For example under the professionals category, educated Canadians, Americans and Mexicans in 63 occupations can obtain work permits for up to three years to work as engineers, accountants, lawyers and so on. Under NAFTA, citizens may apply to work in any of the three countries, as long as they have a qualifying temporary employment offer. This process is much easier and faster than the process that a citizen of another country would face to secure work authorization and enter the North American workforce.
Professionals under NAFTA must fall under one of 63 occupations listed in the current NAFTA provisions. This list was created before the rise of the digital era and therefore does not include many high demand occupations. Therefore, the NAFTA negotiations are an opportunity to update this occupation list. However, the current NAFTA negotiations and the general anti-immigrant political climate in the US will not only make it difficult to update this list but there is talk that the professional provisions may be removed entirely, putting the status of tens of thousands of Canadians, Americans and Mexicans in jeapordy.
Unfortunately it is not clear what will happen to professionals if NAFTA negotiations breakdown and the US withraws from NAFTA. The good news for Canadian businesses that hire American and Mexican workers is that they may be able to apply for authorization and work permits for their employees under other programs such as the global talent stream. However, the fate of Canadians and Mexicans in the US is less clear, particularly with the strong competition for existing professional work permits and we may see thousands of Canadians returning home to Canada, reversing the general trend over the past few decades of Canadian talent leaving for the US. While the negotiations and talk of trade wars continue it is impossible to predict what will happen but we can hope that cool heads prevail and the provisions are saved and updated to allow for many more decades of prosperous trade and free movement of work between the three countries.
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Zeynab Ziaie is a graduate of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto and a lawyer licensed to practice in Ontario and New York. Her legal practice focuses on immigration and business law. She often works with clients to find suitable solutions in complex immigration and citizenship cases and represents clients at all levels of court.