US companies say visa rules are jobs boon for Canada

Rather than protect US jobs, Donald Trump’s restrictions on visas for foreign workers will encourage companies to move highly skilled roles to Canada, executives and immigration advisers on both sides of the border predict. 

Cities from Toronto to Vancouver had already reversed their “brain drain” of professionals to US business hubs in recent years, saying harsher American immigration rhetoric and the relative affordability of housing and healthcare were persuading more Canadians to stay and more immigrants to choose Canada over the US. 

But Mr Trump’s decision to extend a ban on permanent US residency applications and stop issuing other work permits such as H-1B visas has transformed Canada’s ability to compete for scarce talent, said technology and consulting executives who are among the biggest users of such visas.

“This may be a Canadian Jobs Creation Act. You can go to Toronto and hire people there and work quite effectively,” Cisco chief executive Chuck Robbins told the Financial Times this week. 

Tobi Lutke, chief executive of Shopify, the $100bn ecommerce group based in Ottawa, urged companies affected by the halt in H-1B visa issuance to “consider coming to Canada instead”, steering potential applicants with his tweet to a careers site. 

Patrick Pichette, chairman of Twitter, similarly tweeted to H-1B seekers: “Just look to the north, where we welcome you (and your family) with open arms . . . Did I mention free healthcare?”

Rich Lesser, chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, told the FT that his firm had already offered jobs to several candidates who would be affected by the new H-1B and L1 visa rules. Instead of rescinding those offers, “by necessity we will move them to other countries, probably Canada”.

The US risked suffering “a migration of top talent” which would otherwise have been paying American taxes, he warned, dismissing the administration’s argument that the measures would speed the recovery of the US economy.

A CBRE study last year found that Toronto was North America’s fastest-growing market for tech jobs and its third largest after the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. 

“What we want to tell international businesses around the world is, just because America has decided to close its doors to international talent, doesn’t mean North America has decided to close its doors. Canada has not,” said Mark Cohon, chair of Toronto Global, a group that markets the city’s “open doors” immigration policy to potential foreign investors. 

The sun rises behind the CN Tower in Toronto: Canada has reversed the brain drain of highly skilled workers migrating to the US © Getty Images

Marco Mendicino, Canada’s immigration minister, told an interviewer he saw “a tremendous opportunity”, and Canadian immigration advisers said the new US restrictions had sparked a flood of inquiries from tech professionals from India, China and other countries. 

“Interest has exploded,” said Irfhan Rawji, who founded a company called MobSquad 18 months ago to help American start-ups place tech workers rejected by the US immigration process in Canada.

Discussions with US companies “have changed from ‘that’s interesting’ to ‘that’s super compelling’”, he said.

Joshua Schachnow, who runs a platform called Visto.ai, which helps individuals navigate Canada’s immigration system, said it had seen a similar surge in interest, including from current US visa holders feeling unsure of their status. 

“I’d wager that an H-1B holder is sleeping with much more difficulty than a Canadian permanent residency holder right now,” he said. “There’s a war for talent.”

Mr Schachnow added: “The smarter countries are trying to help the companies in their ecosystem to attract that talent.”

The US has clamped down on visas at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has restricted international travel and many companies have become used to having most of their workforce operating remotely. 

Canada was still letting people enter the country to report for work, Mr Rawji noted, and he predicted that it would remain attractive for US companies because of its similar time zones and its trusted intellectual property regime.

Coronavirus had also persuaded some clients that distributing their people around offices in different countries might lower the risk of further outbreaks causing serious disruptions, he added: “It de-risks the business.”

Employers’ broadly positive experience of having staff working from home was unlikely to stem US companies’ demand for work visas, BCG’s Mr Lesser said. He predicted, however, that they would create “hubs of capability outside the US” if they did not see their home country as “a safe and predictable place to put top talent”.