Canada should take advantage of the U.S. immigration debacle and capitalize on high-skilled labour fleeing the US

By Ryan Briggs, Robert Falconer and Juan Moreno-Cruz

On June 22, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending a variety of immigration visas, including H-1B visas for skilled workers, and extending his freeze on new green cards until the end of 2020. While this move is a tragedy for U.S. competitiveness, it is an opportunity for Canadian employers seeking the best and the brightest in tech, engineering and academia. The Canadian government should move quickly to absorb an influx of skilled workers who are either fleeing or barred from working in the United States.

Welcoming more skilled immigrants is not only the right thing to do, as it helps people who will be able to live and work in Canada, but it is the smart thing to do for Canada’s future. Research has shown that cities that attract more immigrants on H-1B visas see rising wages for all natives, a likely effect of productivity growth. Roughly 95 per cent hold at least a bachelor’s degree, with more than half of those holding a Master’s or PhD. Workers who enter the U.S. on H-1B and similar visas are often researchers, with large advantages over natives in the granting of patents and the publishing of academic articles. Higher H-1B admissions of Chinese and Indian immigrants, for example, significantly increased the level of patenting despite making up less than three per cent of the U.S. population.

Immigrants on H-1B and similar visas are also more likely to start a company. More patents and start-ups add innovation and jobs to the workforce, so it’s no surprise that the H1-B visa suspension was criticized by heads of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Telsa and Twitter.

Current and potential H1-B visa holders are exactly the people that Canada should be trying to attract as COVID-19 turmoil wreaks havoc on our economy. While competition for skilled labour is fierce, Canada is well positioned to take advantage of the U.S. immigration debacle. Researchers might consider Australia, but its higher education sector is currently facing major cuts. The U.K. could also be attractive, but it is facing its own issues with anti-immigrant sentiment. Without cheering on the problems of our closest allies, a reasonable view is that Canada should seize this opportunity to become a magnet for global talent. In order to capture this potential upside, the federal and provincial governments can immediately expand a number of existing immigration programs.

One such program is the Global Talent Stream, which allows firms to hire “specialized” foreign nationals in select sectors and process their applications within 10 business days. This stream has contributed to the 21 per cent increase in “higher-skilled” workers arriving in Canada since 2017. Now is an excellent time to expand the list of eligible occupations to match the visas approved under the H-1B program, and to ease the need for a referral under the program.

Canada may also wish to make changes that affect post-secondary students and researchers. Canada’s international student population has grown by 56 per cent since 2016, with some of this growth coming from countries affected by the U.S. Travel Ban. Graduates from U.S. colleges often use the H-1B visa as a path to a green card, while in Canada they receive a work permit. During a downturn in which finding work experience may be difficult, granting Canadian graduates the ability to extend their work permits would help signal to them and to foreign nationals leaving the U.S. that Canada will make every effort to retain them. We could also expand the ability of universities to hire research staff with the same ease granted to some visiting professor positions, allow community colleges to hire under similarly light requirements.

Many people in the U.S. that already have H-1B visas are likely thinking of leaving, either because of uncertainty for their status or because their partners may be stuck without the opportunity to gain a work visa. One way to smooth the road into Canada for such people is to automatically provide anyone with a U.S. H-1B visa with a Canadian work visa. These people have already cleared U.S. security checks and have shown themselves to be driven and qualified. Another option would be to grant them points equivalent to skilled work experience inside Canada based on their experience in the U.S. Provinces may also choose to nominate immigrants for permanent residency. A federal-provincial partnership that matches potential candidates with H-1B visas to relevant provincial programs may help address specific labour needs of different provinces.

Canada is uniquely well positioned to absorb many of the skilled immigrants currently being turned away from, or trying to leave, the United States. Making it easy for these people to move here is both in the best interest of Canada and simply the right thing to do.

Juan Moreno-Cruz is an Associate Professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the Canada Research Chair in Energy Transitions at the University of Waterloo. Ryan Briggs is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Guelph. Robert Falconer is a Research Associate in Immigration and Refugee Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

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