To attract talented tech workers, Canada will soon offer 10,000 work permits to foreigners who are now in the United States on H-1B visas. This might be the first time any country has created an immigration program that hinges entirely on another country’s system.
This suggests that the Canadian government holds two opinions of U.S. H-1B visas: That they are good at attracting the world’s most talented immigrants. And that the ultimate value proposition to prospective immigrants is so weak long-term, that, given the option, many H-1B visa holders will head north to Canada.
Finding a job that can sponsor an H-1B visa within 60 days is not easy, even under normal circumstances. When U.S. companies laid off more than 310,000 workers in 2022 and 2023, it became harder still, especially for tech workers. Last November, Meta alone laid off 11,000 workers. More than 15 percent of Meta’s workers have H-1B visas.
About 50,000 people had their H-1B visas revoked due to loss of employment between October 2022 and April 2023, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and, among them, about 12,500 did not transfer their visas to some other legal status. In other words, they either left the United States or remained without documents.
This is a population of immigrants that the United States should want to keep. Most work in computer-related jobs. Others work in jobs that require specialized skills, such as doctors, professors, accountants and managers.
A bachelor’s degree or its equivalent is required to get an H-1B visa, making visa workers more educated than the U.S. population in general.
Both U.S. political parties have tried and failed to remove the country-based green card quota. As a short-term fix, many lawmakers and industry advocates have urged the USCIS to extend the 60-day grace period after loss of employment to 120 days. But the agency says it would take more than a year to go through the required rulemaking process — too long to benefit immigrants who are already at risk of losing their legal status.
The Canadian government has been able to act faster. Indeed, it is already benefiting from U.S. visa restrictions. Since 2020, Vancouver and Toronto have seen the largest high-tech job growth in North America, outpacing Austin, Seattle and every other U.S. city. H-1B holders who move to Canada will receive open work permits for three years, allowing adequate time to find jobs without deportation worries. And rather than wait decades for a U.S. green card, skilled workers can get permanent residency in Canada in less than a year. Canada will also issue open work permits to spouses of H-1B workers; in the United States, only spouses of those who have an approved green card application are allowed to work.
The Biden administration launched a directive last year aimed at attracting immigrants trained in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the H-1B system is holding the United States back. The loss of H-1B workers to Canada this year might not hurt the U.S. economy too much on its own, but if the immigration system for skilled workers is not fixed, the damage will accumulate and set back U.S. innovation for years to come.