Scrutiny of NAFTA raises concerns for cross-border commuters
DAVE BATTAGELLO, WINDSOR STAR
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But that list is outdated with no connection to today’s world of technology and other new specialized skills.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.”