Can a Canadian Citizen on TN Status Get a Green Card?

TN visas are a great way to work in the U.S. temporarily, but can be a problem if permanent residency becomes the goal.

By , Attorney · Capital University Law School

For Canadian citizens with TN status, seeking U.S. permanent residency (a "green card") can be tricky. The TN category is one of the work-authorized nonimmigrant statuses that requires that the foreign national intend to eventually return to their 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 says that a TN nonimmigrant cannot lawfully have dual intent (that is, simultaneously intend to stay in the U.S. temporarily and permanently). We'll explain the significance of that distinction here, and offer some alternative routes that might allow a TN worker to get a green card without leaving the United States first.

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 may, despite the promises made to U.S. immigration officials to return home at the end of the permitted stay, still seek and apply for U.S. permanent residence. This is perhaps one of the stranger concepts in 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. Unfortunately, if you are a Canadian citizen in the U.S. in TN status, this means that even starting the application process for a U.S. green card potentially could lead to your losing TN status and being returned to Canada.

If you are a Canadian citizen and a TN worker who would like to obtain a green card, there are alternatives. These routes might require a little more legwork, but ultimately you will be able to comply with U.S. immigration law and become a lawful permanent resident.

How a TN Worker Can Obtain Permanent Residence Through Employment

One way to obtain permanent residence is to first apply for one of the work-authorized nonimmigrant statuses that do benefit from dual intent, such as H-1B, L-1, or E-1 status, as follows.

Switch From TN to H-1B Status

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.

Discuss with your employer 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 permanent residence through an employment-based immigrant petition.

Switch From TN to L-1 Status

The L-1A and L-1B statuses also benefit from 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. Also, you must be able to show that you worked in that related company or organization abroad for at least one year within the last three years. Last, 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 complicated program; contact an immigration attorney if you believe you qualify.

Switch From TN to E-1 or E-2 Status

Thanks to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA; formerly known as NAFTA), on which the TN visa is based), Canadian citizens may apply for E-1 treaty trader or E-2 treaty investor status, both of which benefit from some recognition of dual intent, although not as explicitly recognized as the dual intent for H and L visas.

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 Canada and the U.S. are partners under the USMCA, if your employer does significant commerce with Canadian 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 Canadian citizen who wishes to invest a substantial amount of money to expand a U.S. business may qualify for the E-2 program.

Both the E-1 and E-2 statuses have highly specific requirements; contact an immigration attorney if you would like to seek E-1 or E-2 admission.

How a TN Worker Can Obtain 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 might be able to apply for a green card through one of them, as follows.

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 independently for permanent residence, they can eventually include you on their 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 own green card application, you will not lose your TN status.

Nonetheless, be sure to consult with an immigration attorney about work authorization and international travel, including to Canada, as part of the permanent resident application process. You'll need to take extra steps before leaving the U.S. once you apply for a green card.

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 Family-Based Immigration.)

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

If you are in the U.S. in TN status and have an immediately available immigrant visa number, you might be able to file an application to adjust your status to permanent residence simultaneously with your family's petition for you. When you apply for adjustment of status, you can also apply for an employment authorization document that allows you to work in the U.S. while your adjustment is pending. However, this process entails certain risks for TN nonimmigrants because of the dual intent problem. Contact an immigration attorney for details and a personal analysis.

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