Revisiting the TN Visa Program
This week the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a story about the abuse of TN Visas on some large dairies in the U.S. In light of that story, we decided to resurface this story I wrote in early 2018. It’s the story of Juan Pablo Jimenez.
I met Jimenez, his wife and their infant daughter at the World Dairy Expo in 2017. We sat next to each other in a seminar and struck up a conversation. He was working on a farm in Iowa after coming to America from his native home of Mexico. After growing up on a farm in Mexico he went to veterinary school. After graduation he used the TN Visa program to work on a farm in Minnesota. As you’ll read below that farm wasn’t the right fit and neither were the job responsibilities at another farm he worked for in Texas. He made a brave decision to quit the Texas farm and move to a farm in Iowa. When I last talked to Jimenez, he still worked on that dairy, managing a team of employees and using his education to further his career. I’m telling you all this to say, yes, there are bad actors in the dairy industry. Yes, there have been clear cases of abuse regarding the TN Visa program. But also, the program made possible by NAFTA and potentially expanded in the passage of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, has provided an opportunity for some to further their careers in America. There are always two sides to every story, and as you’ll read below Jimenez is willing to share them both.
On a frozen Iowa morning, Juan Pablo Jimenez crosses the yard at Jones Dairy. He’s headed into the herdsman’s office to check in with the employees he helps manage. Ten years ago, in his native Mexico, life looked much different. Growing up on a small dairy there, Jimenez has always loved dairy cows. That’s what prompted him to continue his education and go to veterinary school in Mexico. Because of his degree, Jimenez is allowed to work in the U.S. on a TN visa, a nonimmigrant visa that’s growing in popularity among dairies. The TN visa is the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement which was signed into law in 1993. Citizens of Canada and Mexico qualify for the work visa if they are working in a professional position— including doctors, lawyers and animal scientists—and hold a relevant degree or license.
TN visa use is on the rise. According to the United States Department of State, there were four TN visas recorded in 1994. In 2015 there were nearly 14,000. Canadian Border Control reports the actual number of nonimmigrant workers in the U.S. through the TN program is really much higher than that, because Canadians don’t have to obtain a visa from the Department of State. In 2010, Jimenez came to the U.S. on a TN visa to work for a dairy in Minnesota. He was hoping to advance his knowledge and skills as a veterinarian, but that wasn’t the case.
“It was hard for me to start just working in maternity and cleaning pens during the 12-hour night shift,” he says. “After 4 months they asked me to work as a breeder and it was better for me.”
Finding the right jobs for TN workers is a sticking point for many dairy farmers. Dairy immigration lawyer Kelly M. Fortier says her firm, Michael Best, processes several dozen TN visas each year, including visas for dairy farms. According to Fortier, the main requirement is that you place the employee in one of the approved NAFTA professional positions. Those positions on a dairy farm can include veterinarian, animal breeder, animal or dairy scientist. “If you hire someone and you tell the embassy officer you’re going to put that person in a role, they have to actually do that specific job,” she explains. “We sometimes see people come in as animal scientists with TN status, but they actually milk cows all day, which would not be appropriate.”
There is no wage requirement for the TN visa, Fortier says. “The nice thing for employers is that they have complete flexibility in wages and benefits for these workers,” she explains. “Obviously, federal and state minimum wage laws apply but there’s no separate minimum wage rule.” While in Minnesota, Jimenez was paid $9 per hour plus overtime: A low wage for a veterinarian, but more than he would make in Mexico. After one year in Minnesota, Jimenez went back to Mexico to work as a veterinarian. During his time in Mexico he married and decided to look for a job position in the U.S. Like many TN workers, Jimenez saw an online advertisement for a recruiting company seeking TN workers to interview in Guadalajara.
“They were looking for veterinarians to work on a dairy farm in the U.S.” he says. “I went to the interview and at that moment they told us that they had job positions for milking cows in Idaho.” Jimenez felt uneasy about the Idaho opportunity and decided not to apply. Two months later the recruiter called him about a job on a dairy farm in Texas. He applied, got the job and headed back to the U.S. embassy in Mexico to file TN paperwork again.
TN visas are abundant and can be renewed indefinitely. There is no cap on the number of visas the Department of State will issue and the work visa can be renewed indefinitely. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there’s no limit to the number of times a Mexican or Canadian citizen can apply or renew their TN visa, however, they must have a letter from their employer and show intent to return to their home country to maintain legal status. Fortier says most often intent to return home is achieved by maintaining a residence in their native country.
“In theory a worker could renew indefinitely,” she says. “However, the Department of State can refuse to issue a visa to a candidate they believe doesn’t intend to return to their country.” Jimenez brought his wife with him to Texas through the TN pro- gram for spouses and children of TN workers. Now responsible for a family as well, Jimenez was relieved to find the pay in Texas considerably higher than it had been in Minnesota. “They offered me $45,000 per year working 60 hours weekly,” he says.
“In addition, they provided me good housing near the dairy.” Unlike the H2A visa program, employers aren’t required to provide housing for TN workers, which Fortier says adds to it’s flexibility. At first, Jimenez enjoyed his job in Texas. While there, he worked in the maternity area, bred cows, gave treatments and helped move cows. Then things started to change. “We were paid by salary, but we worked more than 60 hours weekly,” he says. “Once a week I had to shovel the bad feed, and every 14 days I had to work one night in the night shift.” Jimenez says the loader they were forced to drive had no brakes and some days they didn’t take lunch. “One day I was forced to work 24 continuous hours without going home,” he says. “After that I made the decision to quit.”
For a TN worker, quitting a job can be a scary time. As soon as the worker is no longer employed by the dairy listed on their TN paperwork, their legal status in the U.S. is no longer valid and they must leave.
“There’s really no grace period,” Fortier says. “Once employment finishes they are expected to leave the U.S. and it can be very difficult to have to suddenly leave.” BecauseTN visas are employer specific Jimenez had to re-apply for the work visa to accept his current position in Iowa. To change employers some people will stay in the U.S. and process the change through USCIS. Others travel to the embassy in Mexico to obtain a new TN visa. Today, Jimenez is happy working at Jones Dairy where he has been the herd manager for a little more than one year. In late January, Jimenez traveled to the Mexican consulate to renew his TN visa.