The popularity of a new Canadian program meant to attract American tech workers north of the border should serve as a warning to U.S. immigration officials and lawmakers, American immigration lawyers say.
Earlier this week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada opened up an application portal for immigrants in the United States who hold H1-B visas that allow them to work in the tech industry there.
The portal was designed to draw these visa holders to Canada on three-year open work permits. It worked — the program reached its 10,000-applicant cap within two days.
“It’s a smart move by Canada. They see a need to fill in their own economy and available workers who are not being properly used … by the United States,” said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, head of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“This [policy] was really directly targeted at our program and our failures at our program, and really giving an opportunity to H1-B workers who may not have that opportunity in the United States anymore.”
Up to 600,000 immigrants in the States may hold H1-B visas. These documents are directly tied to employment and immigration advocates there say they provide poor pathways to permanent residency.
An H1-B holder in the U.S. who loses their job would have to leave the country within 60 days — unless they find new employment within that time period.
Dhalal-Deini said immigration advocates in the U.S. have been asking for reform of the immigration system for years, but lawmakers are stuck in a political deadlock over the issue.
“It’s a big talking point for the [political] parties to say, ‘Oh we support immigration,'” she said — but undocumented migration from Mexico has turned the idea of reforming immigration policy into a highly partisan brawl.
“At the very least, Canadians have brought to light the fact that there are other, smarter countries with better immigration policies that actually value science, technology, engineering and math,” said immigration lawyer Ashwin Sharma of the Sharma Law Office in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Perhaps the U.S. will start doing the same.”
Will the tech workers coming to Canada stay here?
Sharma also acknowledged that the open nature of the Canadian work permit, coupled with the higher salaries generally on offer in U.S. tech industries, may mean that not all applicants are looking to move to Canada on a long-term basis.
“It could be that the H1-B workers are coming over for a short period of time to perhaps kill off some unemployment period of time,” he said.
“It remains to be seen how many will remain in Canada.”
He said the speed with which the program hit its application cap is still remarkable.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Canada has other advantages that make up for lower salaries.
“Tech workers who are here on a work permit have a unique opportunity to transition to permanent residency,” he said.
He said his department would follow up on the application process over the next few months before deciding whether it would expand this policy or others — part of what he calls Canada’s “digital nomad” strategy.
“We’re going to want to see whether people are in fact landing jobs in the sector with companies who are looking to experience growth,” Fraser said.
The minister said he expects to see the first applicants arrive in Canada this summer or fall.
He said he has not heard from U.S. immigration officials since starting the program.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services did not respond to a CBC News request for comment.
The Canadian online portal has faced criticism for glitches that prevented some applicants from completing their entries.
Fraser said the government will address those problems if it decides to relaunch the program.