Visa is­sues send U.S. tech work­ers north

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS I WORLD - EMILY RAUHALA

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. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has vowed to crack down on the H-1B visa pro­gram, which al­lows 85,000 for­eign­ers per year to work in “spe­cialty oc­cu­pa­tions” in the U.S. But there are no new rules yet, cre­at­ing a 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 mak­ing the move. Though it is hard to track how many for­eign na­tion­als have moved from the U.S. — 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 U.S. 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 fam­i­lyfriendly,” 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 (DHS) 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, U.S. 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 startup 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 U.S. He has three peo­ple on H-1Bs but would hire more if the process was 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 U.S., 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 U.S.

“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 chilly Ed­mon­ton last year.

While the de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion roils the U.S, 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 high­de­mand 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, 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.

MICHELLE SIU / THE WASH­ING­TON POST FILES

Ak­shaya Mu­rali and her hus­band, Abishek Viswanathan, pick up their son, Ishan Abishek Iyer, from day­care in Toronto. Mu­rali is happy to no longer be liv­ing visa to visa.

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