Can a Mexican citizen begin employment in the United States without a TN visa?

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Yes. If the Mexican citizen entered the United States in a different nonimmigrant visa category (i.e. visitor); was present in the United States in valid nonimmigrant status when the TN petition was approved; and a request for a change of status from the nonimmigrant status to TN status was requested, then the Mexican citizen could begin employment on the first date of validity of the TN status.

If the Mexican citizen is present in the United States in valid TN status then the Mexican citizen can begin employment as soon as the TN petition is filed with the USCIS (this assumes that the Mexican citizen continues to work for the same employer).