Kristen Dewar’s NAFTA nightmare goes like this.
She is representing one of her 100 clients at a criminal trial. Then Donald Trump terminates the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Suddenly, she cannot keep working in North Carolina without breaking the law herself.
Dewar, 34, is a defence lawyer from Mississauga who is allowed to practice in the U.S. under the “TN” immigration status reserved for Canadian and Mexican professionals.
TN stands for Trade NAFTA. And NAFTA might vanish, in which case the TN status might vanish as well.
“And I have to go home,” Dewar said. “I would be literally a person without status.”
The possible demise of the trade pact has alarmed Canadian professionals working in the U.S. under the TN, an immigration category unlike the others: it was created not through domestic U.S. law but through NAFTA itself.
They are engineers, scientists, architects, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and graphic designers, among more than 50 additional occupations. If Trump follows through on his threat to terminate NAFTA — and he is not thwarted by lawsuits or Congress — it is entirely unclear what will happen to them.
It is possible Trump and Congress would allow them to stay indefinitely. It is possible they would be allowed to stay until their current three-year permit expired. But it is also very possible, given Trump’s desire to reduce immigration of all kinds, that they would be forced to leave the country fast.
“It’s a little bit unnerving,” said Mike Doherty, 30, a software engineer from Cambridge working at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. “I think the really unfortunate thing is that if things totally fall apart, no one really knows what that means. Do people have to leave the country immediately? Is there a six-month grace period? Do you potentially get to stay for the remainder of your work permit? No one really knows.”
Immigration lawyers say they have experienced a flurry of concerned inquiries from TN holders. They have little reassurance to offer.
“I’m advising them that I don’t know what Mr. Trump has in mind,” said Blair Hodgman, an immigration lawyer licensed in Nova Scotia, Ohio and Massachusetts. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”
The apprehension over the TN is another example of just how wide-ranging the impact of a NAFTA termination could be. While the deal is widely understood to govern the manufacturing and trade in hard goods, like cars, it also affects everything from immigration to intellectual property to entertainment.
Some Canadian firms could stand to benefit if the TN were eliminated, since some of Canada’s educated professionals would be forced to return home. But the Liberal government generally sees professional mobility as an asset. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has said Canada will push in the ongoing NAFTA negotiations for more professional occupations to be added to the outdated 63-occupation TN list.
The idea is a tough sell to the Trump administration. Trump has backed a bill to cut legal immigration in half. And he has repeatedly, as recently as this month, floated the idea of killing NAFTA altogether.
At the talks, a Canadian official said on condition of anonymity, the U.S. has largely stayed quiet during Canada-Mexico discussions of the professional-entry issue, participating “only to the degree to avoid being seen as non-co-operative.”
Hodgman and other lawyers said people who are able to renew their TNs now should do so to position themselves for the possibility the U.S. will let them stick out their current term.
It is not only individuals fretting. The demise of the TN would harm the American companies who employ them.
“We represent companies that transfer workers through the NAFTA agreement. And their HR departments are quite concerned about how it’s going to impact their ability to recruit foreign workers,” said Michael Niren, a lawyer and chief executive of Canadian-American immigration firm VisaPlace.
The U.S. government said it could not immediately provide statistics on how many Canadians currently hold TN status. But the number is at least in the tens of thousands.
Unlike most other U.S. work visas, TNs can be obtained immediately at the Canada-U.S. border. And there is no defined limit on how long they can be renewed.
If the TN disappeared, some Canadians would likely be able to obtain other visas through their employers. Others would almost certainly be out of luck.
“I have my life set up here. So the uncertainty is always on my mind every time I read these articles or see Trump’s tweets or anything like that. I definitely don’t want to be kicked back to Canada all of a sudden. I’d have to uproot my life,” said Rami Abou Ghanem, 27, a Calgary software engineer working in New York City. “For my field, I found there are a lot more opportunities in this country.”
Doherty was able to look on the bright side: Canadians face far less dire prospects than some of the other people Trump has tried to evict.
“We’re really lucky that if I do get sent home, it’s going to be to Canada and not somewhere tragic,” he said.