Impact of Canada’s H-1B visa talent grab may go well beyond 10,000 applicants

Immigration minister Sean Fraser on stage at Collision
Taking aim at "broken" US visa program was "best marketing Canada has ever done": lawyer.

Seattle-based Canadian immigration lawyer Pavan Dhillon had an “incredibly hectic” day on June 27.

Soon after Sean Fraser, Canada’s minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, unveiled a new immigration stream for holders of the US H-1B visa, the phones started ringing off the hook.

“The fact that Canada has a work permit category that, in its title, references another country’s work permit category, that in and of itself really demonstrates some of the issues.”
—Pavan Dhillon
Immigration Lawyer

“There was a rush of queries through our office by phone, by email, and also on LinkedIn,” she said. “Everybody wanted answers immediately; they were asking questions about who exactly was going to be eligible, what documentation was going to be needed, how applicants could apply.”

Unfortunately, Dhillon was short on answers. She, like her clients, had to wait until an online portal launched on July 16. By the next evening, the program’s 10,000 application limit had been reached.

“This was particularly remarkable in terms of the amount of interest,” she said. “I actually was surprised it took as long as it did to fill up; I think it would have been faster if there were [fewer] issues with the rollout, and if there was more information given in advance.”

Dhillon, who was born, raised, and educated in Canada before moving to the United States as an immigration lawyer ten years ago, likened the pandemonium to that which typically follows a change in American immigration policy, a national election, or a major supreme court decision.

She argued that while applications are closed, the rollout of such a bold program—one which is explicitly designed to exploit the limitations of a neighbouring country—will have an impact that extends well beyond the 10,000 individuals who applied.

“This is the best marketing Canada has ever done,” Dhillon said. “The fact that Canada has a work permit category that, in its title, references another country’s work permit category, that in and of itself really demonstrates some of the issues around the [H-1B] program in general, because it is broken.”

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Unlike the H-1B visa, for example, successful applicants to this new immigration stream won’t be tied to a single employer, and will have an open work permit for up to three years. If an H-1B visa holder in the United States quits or loses their job, they only have 60 days to find a replacement, or face deportation. That makes it difficult for the more than half a million H-1B visa holders in the United States to make long-term plans, Dhillon said.

Furthermore, the new Canadian work permit for H-1B visa holders allows spouses and dependants to apply for temporary residency, along with a work or study permit. South of the border, spouses of H-1B holders must meet certain criteria and apply for separate employment authorization in order to work.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) also provides successful applicants with a clear path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship, while the US enforces a cap: no group of permanent immigrants from a single country can exceed seven percent of the total immigrants to the US each year. That puts foreign nationals from countries with large populations at a significant disadvantage.

“Every country has the same number of slots to get a green card from an H-1B, and places like India have a 30-year wait list,” explained Ilya Brotzky, the CEO and founder of VanHack, which helps Canadian employers bring foreign talent into the country. “I often joke that it’s easier to become a Canadian citizen and then move to the US than it is to move to the US directly.”

Brotzky added that the new Canadian program will also be a boon to employers, not only because it provides one more avenue for sourcing highly skilled talent, but because it further establishes Canada as a viable option for foreign nationals who have American work experience.

“There’s a familiarity factor, and it proves that you can work in a North American culture,” he said. “The Canadian government is saying, ‘If you’re good enough for the H-1B program you’re good enough for us,’ and I think Canadian companies say the same; ‘If you’re good enough for a Bay Area start-up or big American tech company, you’re good enough for our company too.”

Though the program was only announced weeks ago, and despite its tight limit on applications, communication challenges, and reports of technical glitches, it’s already having a profound impact. In developing a visa program unapologetically piggybacking on America’s H-1B visa process—and in many ways, offering a clear contrast to its limitations—the IRCC appears to have struck a nerve.

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“There’s huge interest in this story, and I think it’s less about the portal or the skill sets, and it’s more about the narrative and the brand of Canada,” said Nick Schiavo, the director of federal affairs for the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI).

Schiavo said he and his team have been in consultation with IRCC in its development of the program since the spring.

“One of the things that I actually said to the minister, and I stand by it, is that you’re better off starting these programs smaller, and getting them right—making sure they’re strong and they’re streamlined—and once we know our systems and our communities can handle the influx, open it up and expand it,” he said. “I see this as almost like a pilot, and if the government is to expand it and continue it they can be smarter with how applications are designed, about what information is provided up front, about how the selection criteria is decided, and it’s only going to get better and bigger.”

Schiavo added that the application pool was kept intentionally small to give the IRCC time to study its effects. He acknowledged that there remain valid concerns regarding housing availability, the tech job market in the wake of layoffs, and other issues that will need to be studied. In the meantime, he said the real value of introducing the program is the message that it sends. That, he added, will leave a lasting impression, even if the Americans address some of the challenges associated with the H-1B program.

“That Canadian brand is going to stand as one that is more values-based, is more open [and] does emphasize diversity and inclusion,” he said. “It’s less ‘You’re here for a job, get in and get out,’ and more so ‘This can be your new home,’ and that contrast between the Canadian and American styles for bringing in high skilled labour is quite striking, and definitely an advantage for us.”

Feature image of Immigration Minister Sean Fraser courtesy of Collision

Jared Lindzon

Jared Lindzon

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist, public speaker and BetaKit contributor who has been reporting on technology, entrepreneurship, and the Future of Work for over a decade. Through that period his work has been featured in many of the world's top news publications, and often focuses on how global, national, local, and organizational policy decisions influence individuals. As a public speaker Lindzon is regularly called upon to share those insights in keynote presentations and appear on panels alongside some of the world’s leading business, political, and cultural figures. Born, raised, and based in Toronto, Lindzon earned a Master of Arts in Journalism degree from the University of Western Ontario, where he also received an Honours BA in Media Studies.

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