Blaine, Washington boasts the motto “Where America Begins!” For Canadian executives transferring with their companies to the U.S., the tiny border town may not be the beginning they were hoping for.
For the next several months at Blaine, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is temporarily ending a perk that Canadians have enjoyed for decades under NAFTA. Canadians with "specialized knowledge," managers and executives seeking intracompany transfers to the U.S., will no longer be able to have their L-1 visas processed on-the-spot. Employees must now send their documentation to be scrutinized ahead of time at a U.S. service center.
USCIS said the pilot, which shifts responsibility for adjudications to the agency from Customs and Border Protection, is aimed at “increasing consistency” across the L-1 visa program, according to a memo from the agency. Lawyers who specialize in the field said it’s another way of making immigration more restrictive under President Donald Trump’s Buy American and Hire American Executive Order when the two countries are already bristling over trade.
“USCIS has been drowning employers in paperwork,” said Scott Railton, an immigration lawyer at Cascadia Cross-Border Law in Bellingham, Washington. Sometimes companies need workers urgently and that’s facilitated by on-the-spot adjudication, he said. Those who qualify “ultimately provide the basis for the creation of more jobs and business. They also tend to be high earners who may put more money into the economy.”
On-the-spot adjudication is a relic from the days when examiners with expertise were stationed at ports of entry, a USCIS representative told Bloomberg News in a statement. The ability to continue that "is limited by personnel." The agency will consider extending the pilot, which began in April and runs to October, to other ports of entry once the Blaine program is complete, the representative said.
Immigration experts worry the pilot could be extended to other visa categories if deemed successful. It follows a November memo in which USCIS ruled research analysts couldn’t qualify as “economists” and thus be eligible for three-year TN visas. The U.S. is moving to tighten its borders more broadly, including cracking down on the H-1B, a temporary visa for high-skilled workers, and banning entry from several predominantly Muslim nations.
Like H1-B, L-1 is used heavily by the U.S. tech industry, including companies like Amazon.com Inc., Google, and Microsoft Corp., along with Canada’s Open Text Corp. which had 27 approved petitions in fiscal 2017, according to USCIS. But the agency has been quietly chipping away at L-1 in recent months through a series of memos, including one that makes it harder to get renewals. Immigration practitioners said that while the goal may be to crack down on those claiming “specialized knowledge,” others who use the L-1 category -- Canadian executives and managers -- could end up as collateral damage.
“We’re in watch and wait mode,” said Shannon Donnelly, an immigration lawyer and partner at Baker McKenzie in Washington D.C. She said the pilot has caused some anxiety.
Changes to L-1 comes during a testy time between the two countries. The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement remains in limbo after the Mexican presidential election and ahead of U.S. midterm elections. A tit-for-tat tariff war has also broken out between the two countries.
For now, Canadians wishing to avoid the new approach can enter anywhere but Blaine, which is nestled between the competing tech hubs of Seattle and Vancouver. There are three other crossings nearby.