In mid-July, the Canadian government introduced a new initiative that provides work permits to foreign workers living in the United States (US) on valid H-1B visas. The programme, part of a series of immigration measures launched by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is aimed at addressing the growing demand for specialty workers in Canada. In addition to work permits, Ottawa also introduced a new express entry programme tailored for professionals in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields.
The initiative ignited huge interest among H-1B visa holders in the US, leading to the exhaustion of the application cap of 10,000 in a matter of days. Anecdotal evidence suggested the vast majority of individuals who applied for the Canadian work permit were Indian tech professionals currently entangled in the prolonged green card waiting process.
The enthusiasm should serve as a warning to the US. Multiple reports indicate that the Canadian work permit is considerably easier to acquire and is granted within a significantly shorter timeframe than that in the US.
The new initiatives present highly skilled technology workers from India in the US with another option for living and working in a country that provides a comparable quality of life and offers similar wages. In a global economic landscape characterised by growing competition between the US and China, especially in the realm of Artificial Intelligence, there is a significant concern among executives of major US tech companies that they are hamstrung by the obstacles put in place by the country’s immigration system in recruiting top-notch international talent.
The tech industry has long relied on the H-1B programme as a primary avenue for recruiting overseas workers. However, acquiring it is a challenging endeavour, often taking months.
A congressionally mandated cap limits the annual H-1B numbers to 65,000. US companies can hire an extra 20,000 workers who have completed master’s and doctoral degrees at US educational institutions. The tech industry argues that the ceiling of 85,000 is inadequate in light of supply-and-demand dynamics.
The ordeal faced by many workers after arriving in the US is discouraging. Due to a quota system that limits citizens of any single nation to no more than 7% of the annually allocated green cards, tens of thousands of Indian nationals find themselves stuck in years-long waiting lines, with a significant percentage possibly having to endure decades of turmoil to secure their permanent resident permits.
Through the years, numerous bills have been introduced to address this situation. However, none have reached the President’s desk due to strong opposition from anti-immigration hawks, especially in the Republican Party. At the moment, 230,000 green cards within both family and employment categories, dating back to 1992, remain unutilised. Advocates have been urging for these slots to be allocated to individuals who are stuck in the green card backlog. Last month, Indian American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and 57 other lawmakers urged the Biden administration to eliminate the “bureaucratic delays” in granting green cards through administrative action. In their letter, the lawmakers cited the “increased recruitment by Canada of foreign STEM talent” as one of the reasons for the request
The US immigration system is ill-prepared to manage the demands of the 21st century. The most recent significant immigration reform was nearly four decades ago. When the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the US information technology industry, the largest consumer of H-1B visas, was in its infancy. Apple and Microsoft, the two largest tech companies in the world, were completing their first decade of existence, and Google and Facebook were not born yet.
It is worth remembering that what made the US globally competitive was its immigration policies, which drew talented individuals from around the world to its shores over centuries. Sadly, those solid and sound policies have been replaced by an inefficient and ineffective policy.
The Canadian initiative stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the US on immigration and the economy. While a significant faction within the Republican Party aims to limit even legal immigration to the US, in Canada, there exists bipartisan consensus spanning both the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition Conservatives on immigration matters. Unless the US takes substantive steps to address the persisting green card backlog, it risks losing a significant pool of skilled professionals to its northern neighbour and other countries. If it does, America will also lose an essential part of its competitive advantage in the world marketplace.
Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal