US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says its officers have been told specialised nurses from Canada do qualify for Nafta professional visas.
CBP issued the clarification after a handful of Michigan hospitals said some Canadian employees had been stopped at the border.
Henry Ford Health System officials grew concerned when somenurses reported problems renewing work permits.
CBP says nurses affected should reapply for the permit.
Many Detroit-area hospitals recruit Canadian nurses to work in the US under so-called Nafta professional TN permits.
But Henry Ford Health System (HFHS), which operates a number of hospitals in the Detroit area, held a news conference earlier this week to discuss concerns that some Canadian nurses with advanced specialties were having a hard time either renewing their TN status or getting the classification at the border.
The Michigan Council of Nurse Practitioners sent a note this week to members citing one nurse’s story, a Canadian who had been working in Detroit for years. Her TN status was up for renewal but says she was told that nurse practitioners might not be covered when she went to get it updated.
That nurse has since been able to renew her TN and return to work, according to the council.
Under the Nafta non-immigrant professional TN category, which includes medical professionals, citizens of Canada and Mexico can work in the US for American or foreign employers.
It is unclear how many nurses may have had problems at the border. HFHS officials and Marc Topoleski, an immigration lawyer they retained, declined interview requests on Friday, but said they were “looking forward to working with CBP to resolve this issue on behalf of our nurses”.
According to HFHS figures, they had 362 Canadian nurses working for them in 2015, and have actively sought to hire Canadian nurses to fill jobs in specialty areas at their health centres.
Many more Canadian nurses work in other area hospitals, commuting to work in a short trip across the Detroit River.
Some 30 advanced specialty nurse practitioners and nurse anaesthetists employed by HFHS could be affected by any policy changes related to the TN Nafta professionals classification, according to the hospital’s officials.
In a statement on Friday morning, CBP said that there had been no “policy changes that would affect TN status” and that the most common problem it sees for people trying to get TN status or visas is improper paperwork and a lack of relevant documents.
Later on Friday, CBP spokesman Kris Grogan said the agency has performed a review and have “deemed that those specialised degrees do fall under the TN status”.
Laurie Tannous, a special adviser at the Cross Border Institute at the University of Windsor in Ontario, said reports of border problems might not be related to any direct CBP policy changes but instead a more literal reading of Nafta regulations by border officials under the Trump administration.
Ms Tannous noted that registered nurses do qualify to work in the US under the TN category – but the Nafta text does not specify anything with regards to nurses who have specialised skills.
“They are doing a literal interpretation,” she said. “Now they are reading line-by-line.”
Ms Tannous added the concern was that, while hospital officials have said they are willing to apply for other work visas for their nurses, they needed to know whether their employees would be at work that day – or stopped at the border.
“There’s a nursing shortage in Michigan. There’s a reason why they all employ Canadian nurses,” she said.
“There are patients that need care and to run hospitals on a short staff is a scary thought.”