Lost in the NAFTA drama: The easy movement of people

What Canadians need to know when driving in the U.S.

Author/ Catherine Glazer Publication/ The Globe and Mail

Catherine Benedict Glazer is a U.S. immigration attorney living in Toronto. She has worked for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

To many observers, the North American free-trade agreement is about money, transactions and trade. To others, it means movement, including the movement of people, at least as it relates to cross-border trade.

Surprisingly, NAFTA’s lesser-known immigration implications have been largely left out of the discussion around recent threats to the treaty. Many people are simply not aware that NAFTA allows certain foreign workers to enter the United States. And while it can’t help everyone make a long-term move, NAFTA certainly does open some doors. Now, we can only speculate as to whether they will soon be slammed shut.

Under NAFTA, citizens of the United States, Mexico and Canada may apply to work in any of the three countries, as long as they have a qualifying temporary employment offer. Because of the reciprocity, it is not necessary to prove that the job won’t be taken away from a citizen.

Most impressively, NAFTA does away with long waits, since some applications are reviewed right at the border. It is even possible to cross at Niagara Falls on foot. U.S. and Mexican applicants working in each other’s countries do require visas from the consulate, but the limited paperwork still makes NAFTA work permits highly attractive.

NAFTA also includes provisions for intracompany transfers and those who qualify as “Treaty Traders,” by earning substantial income from U.S. clients. NAFTA even has a category for those who wish to invest into a U.S. business.

Donald Trump’s intention behind stifling NAFTA may be to somehow benefit the United States, but he could actually inspire the opposite result, at least with respect to the loss of the positive influence of smart Canadian and Mexican NAFTA workers as they leave the U.S. work force. Meanwhile, Canada and Mexico might be pleased to welcome a new influx of returning nationals, offer alternative immigration schemes to keep their own foreign workers post-NAFTA and even see “brain drain” leaks sealed off as U.S. immigration becomes less alluring.

All in all, with the travel bans and commitments to “Hiring American,” U.S. immigration policies certainly seem to be narrowing towards exclusion.

Canadian news coverage on the other hand, has been featuring movement north. Canada recently removed the visa requirement for Mexican visitors and, unlike the United States, even allows for citizens of some countries to be issued work permits directly at the border. A new “Global Skills Strategy” is enabling employers to hire more talented international workers.

Similarly, the magnetism of Mexico has been rising in the news. Its capital has been depicted as a growing economic, artistic and cultural hotspot, drawing inspired professionals from around the globe. Mexico’s technology sector is soaring too. The state of Jalisco, for example, is receiving attention for having a supportive environment that attracts bright newcomers.

And now, with recent turmoil surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – a program that protects “Dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children – young, educated and motivated Dreamers may soon be flowing to back to Mexico (or off to Canada) to enter the labour force.

To fuel the future, both Mexico and Canada have streamlined their permanent residency procedures. Canada has an effective points system that aims to welcome and keep the skilled. Mexican law allows for its own points system, as well as other useful programs.

So, as Mr. Trump eagerly goes after NAFTA, he won’t stumble upon a happy ending for the United States if his attempts to drown out his fears instead suppress one more viable avenue of movement, further adding to the steady depletion of his country’s legal international work force. The United States may even end up feeling excluded, surrounded by talent, and walls that do more than just keep others out.

And for the neighbors watching it all, as the border floodgates start to tremble in the opposite direction, there may be more irony to this than we all thought.

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