Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Bush administration’s top trade official yesterday urged service sector companies to lobby Congress for trade pacts that include easier cross-border movement of professional workers.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick last year negotiated free-trade agreements with Chile and Singapore that created new “temporary entry” provisions for business visitors, intracompany transfers and professionals in sales, marketing and other fields.

The language incensed some lawmakers, who complained that immigration rules do not belong in trade agreements. House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and his colleagues forced through changes in the trade pacts’ visa provisions and demanded future agreements leave out immigration law.

“It is my hope and expectation that the Judiciary Committee’s clarion call over the last two weeks that immigration provisions be excluded from future trade agreements will be clearly received by this — and future — administrations,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said before the July 2003 votes that approved the two agreements.

Mr. Zoellick yesterday at a Capitol Hill forum said that service-sector companies should work with Judiciary Committee members to determine whether they would reconsider.

The Chile and Singapore provisions allow 1,400 Chileans and 5,400 Singaporeans to obtain a new category of renewable, one-year visas to work in the United States — a tiny fraction of a civilian labor force of 147.7 million. The visa is available to professionals with specialized knowledge in a particular field.

The U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, approved by Congress a year after the other two pacts, did not include immigration provisions. A U.S.-Bahrain pact, not yet approved by Congress, also excludes immigration provisions.

Thailand, however, actively is working to ease movement of professional workers with the United States as part of a free-trade agreement under negotiation.

Service sector companies include finance, insurance, express delivery, health, law and a variety of other businesses. The firms are some of the United States’ strongest exporters, and generate a trade surplus in services.

For goods, the trade deficit was $54.5 billion in July, while for services the surplus was $4.4 billion, according to Commerce Department figures.

Service sector companies, which often rely on face-to-face meetings to sell their products, generally support easier movement of personnel.

The Coalition of Service Industries, a trade association, defended the immigration provisions in the Chile and Singapore agreements last year in congressional testimony.

“Moving professional people in and out of foreign countries … is a critical aspect of services trade,” said Norman Sorensen, a coalition member and president of Principal International, an Iowa financial services firm.

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