TN visas allow Canadian and Mexican professionals to work in the United States for up to three years, with the potential to renew them indefinitely. These temporary work visas – an outgrowth of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, now USMCA) – involve a simple application process for both the employer and the employee, where the most significant hurdle may only be finding an available date for the required consular interview.
TN visas have many positive features – they are uncapped, low cost, indefinitely renewable, and positively impact a U.S. labor market dealing with ongoing labor shortages. Given these features, along with the visa program’s positive impact on U.S. relations with Canada and Mexico, the TN visa may be an appealing model for the U.S. to adopt with other allies.
This explainer explores the history of the TN visa program and other similar visa categories, highlights its potential to alleviate America’s labor deficit, and suggests creating similar visas for nationals of allied countries of the United States.
Brief History of the TN Visa
The TN visa emanates from NAFTA, which took effect in 1994. NAFTA — entered into by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico – created one of the largest trading blocs in the world and included a multilateral side agreement called the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC).
Among its provisions, the NAALC allowed Canadian and Mexican professionals with qualifying, pre-arranged U.S. job offers to get temporary U.S. work authorization for up to three years through indefinitely renewable TN visas. To be eligible for a TN visa, the job offer has to fall under one of the 63 specified qualifying professions requiring at least a bachelor’s degree.
When in 2018, NAFTA was replaced by a new United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA), the U.S. agreed to keep the TN visa program in place. Under USMCA – and its corresponding domestic legislation in the Immigration and Nationality Act – TN visas remain uncapped and continue to cover significant numbers of qualifying professions in different fields for temporary work in the United States.
In 2022 – a year in which the country experienced a severe labor deficit – the U.S. issued 33,361 TN visas for Mexican and Canadian professionals. Notably, only 11% of the applications were denied. In other words, the TN visa represents a valuable source of highly specialized talent for the United States from its two neighbors and close allies, further strengthening diplomatic, cultural, and economic ties with Mexico and Canada.
TN Visas Can Help Tackle the U.S. Labor Shortage
Since 2021, the United States has struggled to find sufficient workers across all industries and sectors. Employers of all sizes throughout the United States have expressed difficulty hiring manual laborers and people with specialized college degrees. This labor shortage has hindered companies from operating in optimal conditions, which, in turn, has slowed down America’s economic growth.
Worryingly, U.S. demographic trends suggest that these types of labor shortages are likely to worsen within the next few decades. As the National Immigration Forum has warned, the U.S. population is dramatically aging, fertility rates are falling, life expectancy is rising, baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and net immigration levels are not high enough to keep pace with the labor demands. According to a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy, by 2040 the U.S. is expected to have 6 million fewer working-age people than in 2022. Therefore, finding solutions to tackle the labor shortage and help the United States reach its full economic potential is critical.
Given the TN visa’s flexibility and beneficial features, replicating that model with other countries or regions with whom the United States shares free trade agreements could yield strong economic and diplomatic benefits. The requirements, duration, caps, and renewability options of these potential visas could vary from the TN program, depending on the needs of the U.S. labor market and the availability of workers in the allied countries.
For instance, in 2004 the United States entered into free trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, which created a special visa category called H-1B1. Limited to 1,400 nationals of Chile and 5,400 nationals of Singapore, the H-1B1 program allows Chileans and Singaporeans in specialty occupations to work in the United States for up to one year with the possibility of extending it only twice in one year increments – more limited timeframes than the TN visa, but still useful in attracting needed temporary workers in covered specialty occupations.
In order to create a similar visa program for other countries, the United States has two alternatives:
- The executive branch could engage in negotiations with allied countries with whom the United States already has free trade agreements to add annexes to the treaties creating labor mobility visas. The visas could be limited to specialized professionals with at least bachelor’s degrees (like the TN and H-1B1 visas) or include other targeted U.S. trades and professions facing worker shortages. This treaty process, however, would require ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. In addition, the treaty provisions would need to be incorporated into the Immigration and Nationality Act, requiring the passage of legislation by the U.S. Senate and the U.S House of Representatives, which would then be signed into law by the President.
- Separate from any treaty process, Congress has the authority to create new visa categories. Congress can simply create a new visa category containing positive elements of the TN or H-1B1 visa programs. Therefore, any member of Congress could introduce a bill creating temporary work visas for professionals from specific countries. For example, members of Congress have proposed adding Ireland to the E3 non-immigrant visa program, itself an outgrowth of a U.S.-Australia free trade agreement. As regular legislation, such a bill would require the approval of both chambers of Congress and then be signed into law by the President.
Applying for and obtaining a TN visa is a simple process for employers and workers providing a three year, renewal term of work authorization. It is a promising program that the U.S. would be well-served to replicate. Each such program can be tailored for the specific needs of the U.S. and potential U.S. treaty partners or other covered countries countries. Creating such programs through the treaty process or the normal legislative process would be helpful in tackling current and future labor shortages.
Editor’s note: The author, a Mexican national, is a recent recipient of a TN visa.