Can a Mexican Citizen with TN Status Get a Green Card?

Mexican citizens working in the U.S. on a TN visa will have to jump through many hoops to get permanent resident status.

For Mexican citizens with TN status, seeking U.S. permanent residence and a green card can be complicated. All of the work-authorized nonimmigrant statuses, including TN, H-1B, L-1, and others, require that the foreign national intend to eventually return to his or her country of origin.

Although certain work-authorized statuses, such as the H-1B or L-1 classifications, benefit from the concept of “dual intent,” the law also says that a TN nonimmigrant  cannot  have dual intent.

Why Do Dual Intent Rules Help Some Nonimmigrant Workers, But Not TN Workers?

Dual intent means that a person present in the United States in a nonimmigrant status (for example, with a temporary work visa) may still seek and apply for U.S. permanent residence (a green card). Even though the nonimmigrant may have originally said to U.S. immigration officials that he or she intended to leave the U.S. as soon as his or her permitted stay was over, the nonimmigrant can simultaneously intend to stay in the U.S. permanently. This can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around (just one of many in the tangle that is U.S. immigration law).

The law says that certain nonimmigrant statuses, including H-1B and L-1, are compatible with dual intent -- but not TN status. If you are a Mexican citizen in the U.S. in TN status, you face particular risks in starting the green card process. In addition to the lengthy wait times for family-based permanent residence applications, you will also face additional scrutiny when you seek to renew your TN visa stamp at a U.S. consular post. You can be denied a TN visa, and lose your TN status, if immigration officials discover that you actually intend to apply for a green card.

Obtaining a green card and permanent residence is not impossible if you are a Mexican citizen with TN status. However, you must become acutely aware of the risks.

Permanent Residence Through Employment

One of the quickest means for Mexican citizens to obtain U.S. permanent residence is to first apply for one of the work-authorized nonimmigrant statuses that  do  benefit from dual intent.

Switch to H-1B Status First

If you are in the U.S. in TN status, you likely also satisfy the requirements for an H-1B professional. The underlying requisites for an H-1B specialty occupation parallel the TN professions to a great extent. Have a talk with your employer about whether it would be willing to petition for you as an H-1B worker. If you are admitted under the H-1B program, you can then work with your employer to pursue a green card through an employment-based immigrant petition.

Switch to L-1 Status First

The L-1A and L-1B statuses also benefit from an allowance for dual intent. However, these visa types require a bit more in the way of prerequisites from both you and your employer. For starters, your U.S. employer must have an affiliate, subsidiary, or other similarly related company or organization in another country. Because the corporate structures favored by Mexican companies do not often match the U.S. definitions of “affiliate,” “subsidiary,” or other corporate relationship, you may encounter difficulty in proving that your Mexican employer abroad qualifies.

You must be able to show that you worked in that related company or organization abroad for at least one year. Also, your employment abroad must have been in a specific capacity, either as a manager or executive or as a “specialized knowledge” worker. The L-1 is a much more complicated program; contact an immigration attorney if you think you might qualify.

Switch to E-1 or E-2 Status First

Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexican citizens may apply for E-1 treaty trader or E-2 treaty investor status, both of which benefit from dual intent rules. The E-1 program requires that your U.S. employer will be engaged in substantial trade with a country that is party to a trade agreement with the United States. Because Mexico and the U.S. are partners under the NAFTA, if your employer does significant commerce with Mexican entities, you may qualify for the E-1 program.  

Similarly, the E-2 treaty investor status permits a citizen from a trade partner country to enter the U.S. to manage substantial investments out of his or her own personal assets. For example, a Mexican citizen who wishes to invest a substantial amount of money to expand a U.S. business may qualify for the E-2 program.

As with the TN, you will have to apply for an E-1 or E-2 visa stamp and face the increased scrutiny this entails. This process also has highly-specific requirements; contact an immigration attorney if you would like to seek E-1 or E-2 admission.

Permanent Residence Through Family-Based Immigration

If you have close family members who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents -- or will soon become so -- you may be able to apply for a green card through one of them.   However, Mexican citizens usually have a long wait until an immigrant visa number for family-based applications become available. That being said, there  are  viable family-based options.

Derivative Benefits Through Your U.S. Spouse

If your spouse has been admitted to the U.S. under one of the dual intent nonimmigrant statuses, or is otherwise able to apply for his or her own permanent residence, your spouse can eventually include you on his or her green card application as a dependent. This is called obtaining “derivative benefits.”

The best part about derivative benefits is that, as a derivative beneficiary, your nonimmigrant intent is not a factor. In other words, if you are in the U.S. as a TN nonimmigrant and your spouse includes you as a derivative beneficiary on his or her green card application, you will not lose your TN status. In addition, you can apply as a derivative under your spouse’s immigrant visa number. This is particularly beneficial if your spouse happens to be from another country, with  more favorable  immigrant visa wait times (due to lower demand).  

Family-Based Sponsorship Directly for You

As you probably already know, certain relatives who are already U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents can file immigrant visa petitions on your behalf. (For more on who is eligible, see "Who Is Eligible for a Family-Based Green Card?")

However, this process is different from the derivative benefit strategy noted above.  If you are a Mexican citizen in the U.S. as a TN, the filing of such a family-based petition for you could trigger a violation of your nonimmigrant intent and status.  

Also, Mexican applicants have notoriously long wait times before an immigrant visa number may become available through the family process. Generally, applicants residing legally in the U.S. and seeking permanent residence through a family-based petition apply for their green card through something called “adjustment of status,” which also allows the applicant to apply for U.S. work authorization while the green card is pending. However, you can apply for adjustment only if there is an available immigrant visa number.

Because you are a Mexican citizen, you will likely not be able to adjust any time soon, because of the long wait before a visa number becomes available for you. Worse, you risk losing both your TN status (because of the dual intent problem) as well as the ability to apply for work authorization through adjustment. (Simply waiting unlawfully in the U.S. after your TN visa runs out could ruin your chances at adjustment.)

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