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Canada attempts to entice H-1B workers from US.

Canada attempts to entice H-1B workers from US

3 January 2024

The country’s new open work permit program is designed to capitalize on US-vetted STEM talent.

Welcome to Canada sign.

When in 2007 Microsoft announced that it would open a software development office in Vancouver, the company made its motives clear: The Canada office was intended to retain highly skilled workers who could not remain in the US because of immigration restrictions related to their H-1B visa status. Now the Canadian government has embraced a similar strategy. This past summer, Canada began inviting STEM and tech workers from the US who hold such visas to head north.

Under the H-1B system, employers sponsor skilled workers from abroad to come to the US. The process involves extensive paperwork, restrictive deadlines, and a lottery that determines whether a sponsorship application can even be filed. There is a limit of 65 000 H-1B visas per fiscal year, as of 2023, though the cap does not apply to government research labs and higher-education institutions. Once a visa is granted, it is valid for three years and can be extended for another three—or more, in some cases. But workers who lose the job to which their visa is tied have 60 days to find a new employer or leave the country. That’s a problem, especially for younger researchers who want to put down roots, start a family, and grow their careers.

For Canada’s new program, up to 10 000 H-1B holders can obtain a visa to work in Canada for three years without needing sponsorship from an employer. Also unlike in the US, visa holders’ spouses and family members are allowed to enter the country to study or work. And there’s a clear route toward permanent residence and eventual citizenship.

“Canada saw the frustration of people with the US system and said, ‘We like skilled, intelligent people who will pay taxes,’ ” says Ravi Jain, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer and founder of the firm Jain Immigration Law. “If we can cherry-pick the best talent, why wouldn’t we?” The new program reached capacity within weeks.

High-tech companies in the US and around the world should be watching the progress of the new program closely, says Joanne Padrón Carney, chief government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The Canadian H-1B policy demonstrates that high-tech workers are unafraid to ‘vote’ with their feet and go where they feel they have the best prospects for employment and standard of living,” she says.

Richard Herman, a Cleveland-based immigration lawyer and researcher, says that in recent years he has noticed a significant uptick in H-1B workers—mostly in STEM, largely concentrated on the West Coast, and primarily Indian nationals—asking for help after losing a job. Clients have told him that if they had known how hard the path would be, they might not have come to the US at all.

Some H-1B visa holders can access a path to permanent US residency, but many face delays. Spouses encounter challenges in receiving a visa to join their partners and risk losing that visa if the partner is laid off. “These policies make the US less appealing, which Canada took advantage of when creating their own policy,” says Carney.

Software engineer Anushka Gupta moved from India to the US in 2017 to pursue her love of augmented reality and now works at Microsoft in Seattle. Though she would have been eligible for the Canadian program, she says she didn’t learn about it until it had filled up. Gupta says that recent layoffs in big tech have hit temporary workers the hardest, and having Canada as a nearby option would help those who are not able to quickly find a new job. “You could be close to your friends and family in the US while pursuing your career dreams,” she says.

Though they have yet to benefit from the program, the leaders of several science and technology companies in Canada say they see the effort as a potential boon.

Quantum computing company Xanadu, in Toronto, employs 180 people, half of whom hail from outside Canada—including CEO and founder Christian Weedbrook. He is originally from Australia and worked as a postdoctoral researcher on an H-1B visa before moving to Canada and eventually getting citizenship there. The main problem in hiring talent from abroad, Weedbrook says, is the lack of speed. When he and his colleagues heard about Canada’s H-1B scheme, they saw it as something that could potentially reduce the paperwork burden and delays that prevent them from rapidly acquiring quantum computing talent from across the globe. “The technical expertise that this scheme targets is huge to us,” he says.

Michel Laberge, chief science officer of General Fusion in Burnaby, British Columbia, shares Weedbrook’s paperwork woes. His company, which pursues bringing nuclear fusion energy to market, needs skills that are not always available at home. “Plasma physicists are rare, and we should be able to get foreigners easily,” he says. But the three-year term for working in the country is short, he says. He’d prefer to hire permanently from the start.

Two people working in an office overlooking a city skyline.
Employees at the quantum computing company Xanadu work in their Toronto office. Credit: Xanadu

It remains to be seen how the program will play out, whether more visas will be granted, and what the ramifications will be on both sides of the border. It’s now been several months since the program filled up, and neither Xanadu nor General Fusion has interacted with the visa recipients—in large part because the government has failed to provide an administrative route for connecting applicants with potential employers.

Sergio Karas, who practices corporate immigration law in Toronto and works with companies in STEM fields, suspects that H-1B holders will view the program as an insurance option: Once they’ve obtained a Canadian visa, they can then find a way to return to the US. “That’s simply because the money and possibilities for advancement are greater there,” he says. Ensuring that visa recipients come to Canada promptly and tracking whether they find STEM jobs and stay will be paramount to the program’s success, he adds.

Herman, the Cleveland-based lawyer, is more optimistic. He points to Toronto as an example of a city that embraced immigration as a way of jump-starting economic growth, in stark contrast to his hometown. In the US, immigrants are twice as likely to start a business and to have a patent as people born in the country. Even before Canada launched its targeted program, Herman encouraged his clients to consider relocating to the US’s northern neighbor. “I’m delighted to see Canada doing this program,” he says. “It keeps talent within North America, which helps everyone.”

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