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Employers worry about potential changes to cross-border worker visas

Thalmic Labs Inc. has operations in California. Co-founder Stephen Lake says no one knows what policy changes with regards to work visas will be coming from the Trump administration.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Marc Adam's web development company Nixa is in full growth mode. "I'm hiring!" he states at the top of his LinkedIn page.

But the chief executive officer of the 27-employee Montreal-based firm is worried about how Donald Trump's plans to renegotiate NAFTA will affect his expansion plans, which depend on the relatively free movement across the border of Canadians and Americans working in key sectors like high tech.

"I need my management team to work where they need to work," and that includes Canadian employees regularly visiting Nixa offices in New York and Philadelphia, he said.

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An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Canadians currently work in the United States under a fast-track process called the non-immigrant NAFTA professional visa, or TN visa.

On Monday, the new U.S. President made good on his promise to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal that includes Canada. And Mr. Trump is moving quickly to reopen the trilateral NAFTA agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico. However, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump said recently in Calgary that Canada shouldn't be "enormously worried" about the trade relationship between the United States and Canada.

Adding to the uncertainty are other potential changes to U.S. immigration laws that could make it more difficult for Canadians to work and live full-time in the United States.

"It's unclear what the Trump administration wants to do (exactly) on both NAFTA and high-skilled immigration," Nigel Cory, trade policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in an e-mail. "It's wait and see."

Andrew Cumming, of Toronto-based cross-border law firm Cumming & Partners, says a presentation he made on U.S. immigration issues to the Canadian Association of New York on Wednesday was packed and that "people are really, really nervous."

But he believes "Canadians, of all people, are in a good position," given the productive working relationship between the two countries over the years in the area of cross-border employment.

"Within NAFTA, the immigration provisions are not controversial," he said. "White-collar professionals covered by NAFTA are net positive to the U.S. economy and the U.S. recognizes that."

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Canada and U.S. immigration lawyer Michael Niren points out that cross-border work arrangements benefit both countries, allowing U.S. tech companies – for example – to fill gaps in the talent pool for engineers, programmers and other high-skilled people.

"The concern I have is that this is a little wrong-headed if the U.S. wants to grow its economy," he said.

It's too early to say what the Trump administration wants to see from Canada, said Mr. Niren. The TN visa program "could be under threat, there could be added restrictions, it could be scrapped altogether."

Torontonian Ron Piovesan, senior director of business development at Internet software company Okta Inc. in San Francisco, says he's not aware at this point of any proactive or pre-emptive moves to ensure that TN and other work-related policies aren't gutted. But he adds: "Canada's been doing a pretty good job of positioning itself in the U.S. and showing itself as a good trading partner."

C100, a Bay Area association of Canadian tech professionals, is keeping a low profile on the issue for now. "At this point we're not in a position to comment on the NAFTA negotiation," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

"There are certainly discussions happening but no one knows what they are or what the actual policy changes will be," said Stephen Lake, co-founder and CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Thalmic Labs Inc., which has operations in California.

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The upside to all this is that Canada stands to benefit if the U.S. clamps down hard on immigration and work visas, he said.

"Canada is looking more and more attractive" if the U.S. becomes less competitive, he said.

Video: 'Don't blow this opportunity': Don Coxe on Canada's chance to renegotiate NAFTA (The Globe and Mail)
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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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