SAN FRANCISCO – Over dinner at a noodle bar, a Canadian entrepreneur pitched a table of U.S. tech executives: Your foreign workers should trade sunny California for snowy Calgary, he told them. And they listened.
Highly skilled foreign workers and the American firms that employ them are in a bit of a visa panic. President Donald Trump has vowed to crackdown on the H-1B visa program, which allows 85,000 foreigners per year to work in “specialty occupations” in the United States. But there are no new rules yet, creating climate of uncertainty and fear, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Canadian businesses sense an opportunity. The Canadian tech scene has sought for years to compete with Silicon Valley, trying to lure talent north. In the early days of the Trump administration, “moving to Canada” talk surged among Americans, but most foreign workers waited.
Now some are the making the move.
Though it is hard to track how many foreign nationals have moved from the United States – the Canadian government tracks newcomers by country of citizenship, not residence – immigration lawyers and recruiters on both sides of the border say the number of inquiries from nervous H-1B holders has skyrocketed since 2017.
A small group of Canadian entrepreneurs are dropping into Silicon Valley to persuade companies that rely on foreign tech workers to move them across the border.
Irfhan Rawji, the Canadian entrepreneur trying to sell U.S. tech executives on Canada over dinner, last year founded a company called MobSquad that helps tech companies move software engineers and other highly skilled workers to Canada. He travels regularly to Silicon Valley to promote his Canadian “solution.”
“Our turnaround to bring a foreign worker to Canada is under four weeks,” he said. “It’s typically longer for them to pack up their stuff.”
For Akshaya Murali, an Indian national who spent nearly a decade in the United States working for companies such as Microsoft and Expedia, moving to Toronto meant an end to living visa to visa.
She and her family applied for permanent residence in Canada and were approved.
Her employer, Remitly, then worked with MobSquad to move her job north. MobSquad signed a contract with Remitly and then hired her to do the same job – senior product manager – for Remitly from Toronto.
MobSquad’s cut is the difference between her total compensation in pricey San Francisco and the cost of the same work in Toronto, which is lower.
Remitly’s chief product officer, Karim Meghji, said the process went so smoothly that he will probably do it again. “My next step is thinking through, ‘What else can I do in Canada?’ ” he said.
Murali landed in Toronto in October and is settling in. “It’s a nice place to bring up our son, really family-friendly,” she said. “The only thing is the weather.”
Silicon Valley’s visa anxiety did not start with Trump, but his policy moves and anti-immigrant rhetoric have compounded the problem, according to tech executives, immigration lawyers and people who have moved.
Months into his presidency, Trump issued a “Buy American and Hire American” executive order that ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review the H-1B visa program with the intention of more closely vetting applicants.
In the wake of the order, there were reports of an uptick in visa denials and requests by immigration officials for additional information, turning the issue into a topic of conversation for big U.S. companies and immigrant communities alike.
In August, chief executives from top U.S. firms including Apple, Cisco and IBM sent a letter to DHS expressing concern about the changes. “Inconsistent immigration policies are unfair and discourage talented and highly skilled individuals from pursuing career options in the United States,” it said.
Asked to comment on these reported changes, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Michael Bars said, “Increasing our confidence in who receives benefits is a hallmark of this administration.”
Bars said proposed changes now under review would make the H-1B process more efficient and ensure the best applicants get visas.
Many have found the uncertainty over the changes to the H-1B program confusing and costly.
S. “Sundi” Sundaresh, the CEO of Cinarra Systems, a start-up that provides location analytics based on mobile data to businesses, says getting U.S. work visas is a significant challenge.
His company employs 55 people worldwide, including 15 in the United States. He has three people on H-1Bs but would hire more if the process were easier.
Recently, an employee who was working remotely and waiting on a U.S. visa quit in frustration. When a second worker reached the same point, he started looking for options and is now talking to MobSquad about Canada. “We can’t lose a second one,” he said.
Michael Tippet, a Canadian entrepreneur who founded a company that helps U.S. firms set up satellite offices in Vancouver as a buffer against uncertainty in the United States, said highly skilled, foreign-born workers feel anxious and frustrated.
“From the company’s perspective, the primary motivation is that they can continue to attract top talent,” he said. “To have those people work for you, you have to show you’ve got their back.”
If you don’t have their back, they may leave.
Amogh Phadke, an Indian citizen with a master’s degree in computer science, an MBA and work experience at FedEx and Fannie Mae, wanted to build his life in the United States.
“I was struggling for 10 years with my immigration status,” he said. His breaking point was the Trump administration’s as-yet-unrealized threat to stop granting work visas for spouses of H-1B holders.
His wife, an Indian national who was studying in Canada, no longer wanted to join him stateside. “She said, ‘It’s here, or we are going back to India.”
He decamped to Edmonton, the chilly capital of Alberta, last year.
While the debate over immigration roils the United States, Canada’s major political parties are broadly supportive of increasing the number of immigrants, as long as they are skilled.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government launched the Global Talent Stream, a program designed to fast-track work authorization for those with job offers in high-demand realms of science and tech.
Successful applicants can get a work permit in a matter of weeks. Spouses and children are eligible for work or study permits.
More than 2,000 companies have applied to hire Talent Stream workers, the department for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in an emailed statement.
With the door wide open, the Canadian government’s biggest challenge may be actually making the case for Canada.
Recent arrivals said the country is not really on the radar. When Phadke told Americans he was moving to Edmonton, they were shocked. “My colleagues were like, ‘Oh, my God, nobody lives in the middle of Canada. Are there going to be roads there?'”
When people heard how quickly he could move, he was met with more skepticism. “They asked, ‘Is it a scam?’ ”
“Canada is really bad at marketing itself,” said Vikram Rangnekar, a former software developer for LinkedIn who recently moved from the Bay Area to Toronto.
When he landed, he was so impressed with the city that he started writing about it. He later started Mov North, a site for people thinking about moving.
The site includes information on dressing for the cold – “The adage ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’ is entirely true” – and information about benefits like paid maternity leave. It also tries to connect software engineers with Canadian companies.
Hugo O’Doherty, an editor at Moving2Canada.com, a website catering to would-be immigrants and new arrivals, said Canada can’t often compete with Silicon Valley salaries, but that tech types make good money relative to the cost of living.
They also gain peace of mind. Noncitizens in the United States “don’t know if they will able to stay, if their spouse will be able to work, if their kids will have a pathway to citizenship,” he said. In his experience, Canada appeals to people who want stability.
For MobSquad’s Rawji, it is all about seeking out the best and brightest and putting them on a path to citizenship. “Our social mission is to change the Canadian economy,” he said.
To those wondering about their status in the United States, he says: Come north.