Threat of Changing NAFTA Affects Border Crossing Workers

Scrutiny of NAFTA raises concerns for cross-border commuters

More from Dave Battagello, Windsor Star
Published on: March 22, 2017 | Last Updated: March 22, 2017 8:33 PM EDT

Thousands of Windsor area commuters who travel into Detroit for work should “proceed with caution” as U.S. legislators review immigration policies and reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, local border experts say.

“On a daily basis I’m asked by those who work there (in Michigan) or applying for jobs about their situation,” said Laurie Tannous, a local lawyer who specializes in immigration issues and is special adviser to the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Institute. “I’m telling everyone to proceed with caution.

“The landscape we are in today offers no certainty.”

NAFTA since its inception more than 20 years ago spells out specific job titles allowing Canadians to obtain visas and hold jobs in Michigan.

But that list is outdated with no connection to today’s world of technology and other new specialized skills.
It was partially for that reason specialized nurses were being detained and had their visa temporarily revoked last week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

“There needs to be an expansion of the descriptions for an engineer or a nurse who has specialized skills,” Tannous said.

“What we are seeing is that (some customs officers) have started saying ‘we are going to enforce the laws that are here.’”

It’s been a shock for Windsor area residents who for years have held full-time employment — often in high-ranking auto sector or health care jobs. For the first time, they are being asked questions by U.S. immigration or customs officials at the border “much different than in the past,” Tannous said.

“What I have been advising everyone to do is make sure they speak with their employers and human resources department,” she said. “They are handling the visas, they have in-house staff or outside counsel handling a lot of this.”

The border crackdown in Detroit on commuters actually started to occur before the Trump administration was in place, said local immigration lawyer Drew Porter.

Over time, many Windsorites have moved into jobs not on the NAFTA list or promoted to positions different from when they were originally admitted — such as an engineer who moved into sales or a front-line health care worker who takes a management position.

Porter said pushback by labour and political leaders in the U.S. under President Donald Trump’s “hire American” campaign is also leading to greater enforcement at the border.

“It’s been over 20 years since NAFTA went into effect so it’s not unreasonable to take a look at what’s working or not,” he said. “Even before the election we were seeing instances where (U.S. Customs) was starting to limit certain work permits.”

There has also been some “mischaracterization” of jobs, which has created some “mistrust,” Porter said.

“(Customs) officers have a difficult job to do,” Porter said. “Some clarity would help everyone, but it would also be foolish to make any stark changes to the detriment of the economies of both countries. If this is done right, we will all benefit.”

Local MP Brian Masse has been among a team of 12 Canadian MPs and Senators who have been in Washington since Monday meeting with U.S. counterparts in Congress and the Senate.

“It’s definitely clear they are going to reopen NAFTA,” Masse said. “It’s a priority for them. Once you do that, it’s a crapshoot how far it goes.”

Since many jobs held by Windsorites who commute are “in a grey zone,” an update is needed, he said.

“Things have changed,” Masse said. “Too many people do not meet the (NAFTA) categories as purely as before. But many of these jobs are those where Americans need and want our labour force or else it creates problems for them.”

Masse is reasonably “comfortable” both the health care sector and auto sector jobs in Michigan held by Windsorites will be protected.

“A lot of this works in our favour because of a skill shortage,” he said. “But it will be our negotiators versus theirs. Whether the (same jobs) will remain open, nobody knows.

“We are telling people to control what you can. Make sure all your information is up to date, relevant and ready for review.”

Scrutiny of NAFTA raises concerns for cross-border commuters

Canadians cross border in record numbers

We’re ‘loving Pure Michigan’

By Claire Brownell, The Windsor Star

Customs officers at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge were busy this summer, with Canadians crossing the border in record numbers in June.

“I’m hearing more about international travel than ever this year,” said Dave Lorenz, a spokesman for the travel and tourism organization Pure Michigan.

“I’m hearing a lot of great buzz out there from my colleagues, just telling me Canadians are coming, they’re loving Pure Michigan, they’re hearing and seeing our message and they’re coming to experience what we have to offer.”

According to Statistics Canada, travel across the border in both directions increased in June, but it was Canadian overnight trips to the U.S. that broke records. Canadians made 1.9 million overnight visits to the U.S. that month, the highest number since the government agency started keeping records in 1972.

In a report released in May, the Bank of Montreal predicted a cross-border stampede after the Conservative government announced increases to the value of goods Canadians are allowed to bring back from the U.S. without paying taxes.

The changes took effect June 1 and the record-breaking rush across the border followed.

Lorenz said it’s hard to say how much of an effect the duty-free limit change had, but it’s certainly not the only reason for all the Ontario licence plates on Michigan highways.

This spring and summer season is set to break records for heat as well as for cross-border travel, enticing more people to spend time and money on leisure activities, he said.

And those leisure activities are a lot less expensive in Michigan, with the state’s economic misfortunes spelling lower prices for tourists.

“Michigan, for a lot of reasons, has great value,” Lorenz said.

“Our economy hasn’t been as healthy as we would like it to be. So you have to price your services and goods and experiences to meet the demand and to be able to lure people here.”

Erin Ernst, a spokeswoman for the Boyne trio of resort properties, estimated this summer saw five or six per cent more visitors than last year.

“I would definitely say we are up with visits throughout the summer,” she said.

“The Canadian market has always been a market of ours, specifically for golf and snow sports.”

The border traffic wasn’t all one way, though. Americans made one million overnight trips to Canada in June as well, an increase of 1.1 per cent over May.

Lynnette Bain, the vice-president of tourism, programs and development for Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island, said increases in American visits to the region were most noticeable during events to celebrate the War of 1812 bicentennial.

She said it’s been a challenge to attract Americans because of tighter border security and the passport requirement, but the organization still targets the U.S. with about a quarter of its marketing budget.

The increased duty-free limit makes it more difficult to convince Canadians to spend their travel dollars locally, she said.

“It’s just something else that provides an obstacle in keeping people from Ontario travelling within the province.”

Lorenz said tourists often visit both sides of the border when they come to the region and attracting more of them is good for both Michigan and Ontario.

“As much as we’re thrilled that Canadians are coming to Michigan, I can tell you there are a lot of Michiganders coming into Canada as well,” Lorenz said.

“I wouldn’t be too concerned that you’re losing a lot of business from Canada coming into Michigan, because Michigan’s giving a lot of business back.”

Detroit-Windsor Tunnel reopens: Closing caused huge backup on Ambassador Bridge

Detroit-Windsor Tunnel reopens after bomb threat


By Corey Williams

DETROIT (AP) — An international commuter tunnel connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, was closed for nearly four hours Thursday after a bomb threat was phoned in on the Canadian side. No explosives were found.

The Detroit Windsor Tunnel, a busy border crossing beneath the Detroit River, was shut down after a duty free shop employee on the tunnel’s Canadian plaza reported receiving a call about a bomb threat shortly after 12:30 p.m.

The tunnel was eventually closed and traffic on both sides of the river was directed to the nearby Ambassador Bridge, which spans the river, tunnel executive vice president Carolyn Brown said.

Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Detroit police and other agencies flooded the plaza and entrance on the tunnel’s American side.

Bomb-sniffing dogs from a number of federal and local agencies were called in, said Donald E. Johnson, head of Homeland Security for Detroit police.

“What we actually did was the actual sweep of the entire tunnel for any type of explosives,” Johnson said.

Cars and buses were allowed back through the tunnel shortly after 4:30 p.m. Traffic from Canada resumed a few minutes later.

The 82-year-old tunnel stretches about a mile across the Detroit River, which is one of North America’s busiest trade crossings.

Cars and buses make up most of the traffic. About 4.5 million cars crossed in 2011.

The bomb threat also resulted in heightened security along the Ambassador Bridge, just west of downtown Detroit.

“As security concerns were made, customs became a little more thorough at the bridge,” said Ambassador Bridge spokesman Mickey Blashfield.

Brown said the security steps appeared to run smoothly.

After the call came in, officials at the tunnel followed protocol that’s established between the tunnel operators and local emergency services officials in consultation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, tunnel officials said.

“We practice this,” Brown said. “Once a year we do a full-blown exercise. We shut it down on a Sunday morning and we have all the first responders in. We simulate an accident or an incident.”

Since 1998, there have been nearly $50 million in facility, safety and security upgrades at the tunnel, said Neal Belitsky, tunnel chief executive.

The video surveillance system at the tunnel was replaced about two years ago, he said, and it’s enhanced each year with additional cameras.

Tunnel closing causes huge backup on Ambassador Bridge

Bomb scare closes Detroit-Windsor tunnel

This is another reminder of the need for redundancy at the Detroit-Windsor border. Crossings between Buffalo and Niagara Falls have five bridges to choose from and carry a fraction of the traffic.

Delays at the bridge could cause missed deadlines for factories that rely on just in time deliveries for parts, and force them to close down as they’ve had to do in the past when these types of closings have occurred.

The New International Trade Crossing would provide six new lanes of traffic and would serve as additional security against delays and backups that are costing the Michigan and Canadian economies millions of dollars each year.