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Corporate America’s visa loss is Canada’s brain gain

In August this year, Kollol Das was weighing his options. The Bangalore engineer had worked in the mobile industry for years and was entertaining offers from two companies on the other side of the world. 

One was a New York start-up, the other a receipt management company in Toronto called Sensibill. They seemed equally attractive until Das started to research the immigration requirements and discovered that it might take until October 2019 to learn whether he could have an H-1B visa to work in the US. Under Canada’s Global Talent Stream system he was approved in five days. 

Toronto won this small battle in the global talent war, but Mr Das’s experience is one that more and more companies are struggling with in the US. The “America First” immigration policy that helped secure the election of Donald Trump has not just affected those hoping to cross its southern border: white-collar workers are finding US visas and green cards are taking far longer to obtain, or are being denied them when once they seemed routine. 

“This is a big headache,” said Duncan Edwards, chief executive of BritishAmerican Business, a transatlantic trade association. “The ‘buy American, hire American’ mantra coming out of the White House has made consular officials around the world be more rigorous in their review and checking.”

Lobby groups in Washington have started to speak up on the issue, with business leaders — including Cisco’s Chuck Robbins, Apple’s Tim Cook and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi — signing a Business Roundtable letter this summer voicing “serious concern” that arbitrary enforcement threatens to disrupt companies’ operations. 

One statistic in particular helps to explain their concern: approvals for H-1B visas, which are widely used by technology companies, dropped more than 40 per cent in 2017. 

It is little coincidence that the Times of India reported a 50 per cent jump in the number of Indians granted citizenship by Canada in the first 10 months of 2018. One of the beneficiaries is Yung Wu, chief executive of a Toronto tech hub called MaRS, which hosts more than 1,300 entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on a 1.5m sq ft campus. 

“Typically in my experience the brains always drained to the US and the past two years we’ve actually seen a brain-gain effect,” he said. “At least 40 per cent of our new applicants are coming from the US, which is shocking to me.”

CBRE, the property company, calculates that Toronto has seen a bigger “brain gain” than any US city, creating 55,000 more tech jobs over five years than it generated new tech graduates. This rise comes as businesses from Microsoft and Intel to Uber and Instacart follow the talent.

The politics of immigration is complicated: even some IT staffing companies admit that some of Washington’s concerns about past abuses of the visa system are valid. But immigration is as much a matter of national competitiveness as corporate tax rates, and we should expect this issue to rise up the US business agenda in Washington in 2019. 

As for Mr Das, he is looking forward to being reunited with friends who moved to the US to earn their masters degrees. “A lot of them are saying if they don’t get their visa they’ll have to leave,” he said. “I’d say in the long term we are going to see more people going to Canada.”

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