NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
Byron Harris reports
There are more than 100,000 American aircraft mechanics who are out of work or who have left the business.
But aircraft repair is flourishing in the United States for mechanics from Mexico, who can enter the country through a loophole in the NAFTA trade agreement.
The loophole is called a TN visa, and it's big enough to drive an airliner through.
News 8 has discovered more than 100 mechanics from Mexico have been recruited by San Antonio Aerospace (SAA) at a time the company is laying off higher wage American workers.
The workers are being brought in as "scientific technicians." Although that part of the NAFTA agreement was designed to allow professionals, such as doctors and lawyers from Canada and Mexico, work in the United States, the law also permits people who are "licensed" to enter the country.
"If they're licensed in Mexico, and if they're a licensed mechanic, it's possible that they could be considered a 'professional,'" said Michelle Scopellite, a Dallas immigration attorney.
Documents obtained by News 8 from some of the Mexican mechanics who received TN visas do not indicate they were licensed anywhere. They show the workers may have gone to aircraft repair school in Mexico. The FAA does not recognize foreign aircraft repair licenses. To get into the United States, however, a mechanic must only convince an officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that his paperwork means that he is a professional.
"In immigration there are several loopholes because of the way an application is drafted it's up to the officer's discretion," Scopellite said.
The FAA does not require an aircraft mechanic to be certified in the U.S. to work on an airplane. It only requires that a U.S. certified mechanic sign off that the repairs done by others had been done correctly.
The problem with many Mexican mechanics is not necessarily their skill level, but that they don't speak or read English. They can't read the repair manuals that are in English, or communicate with the supervisors who have to sign off on their work.
"I would work with these guys sometimes and I was assigned a couple of mechanics," said one certified American mechanic who used to work for SAA. "I would help them out. But, when it came to critical issues such as operation of flight control and systems and radio correspondence, I would refuse."
The former employee said the Mexican mechanics were working on structural repairs, as well as complex electronics inside aircraft belonging to Delta Airlines and UPS at SAA.
Former NTSB member John Googlia said having 100 non-English speaking mechanics working in a shop would be unacceptable.
"That many people who can't read or write or understand English is disruptive," he said.
Googlia himself is a certified mechanic.
"The normal work flow is going to be disrupted because you can't communicate with them," he said. "So, yes, that is a safety issue. And, where is the FAA?"
For the last several months, SAA has been laying off American mechanics. At the same time, SAA president Moh Loong Loh told the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce last week that his company "faces a shortage of skilled workers," according to the San Antonio Express News .
In a written statement, Loh told News 8 his company is "an equal opportunity employer." He did not respond to questions about foreign workers.
Immigration attorney Scopellite said once an aircraft worker comes into the United states, his visa could be renewed for three year periods an unlimited amount of times. And, if U.S. authorities were not notified, "somebody could come in working for one person and USCIS and the Department of State would have no clue."
She said she is in no position to know whether the process represents a threat to national security.
"I've had people call me and tell me they've gotten in here without fully disclosing their credentials," she said.
The government granted 88,000 TN visas last year, according to USCIS. It does not track how many went to aircraft mechanics. But, the number of TNs is expanding, and there is no limit to how many can be issued.