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U.S. visa processing delays heighten allure of Canada’s tech sector

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CMP) officer, stands near security booth as vehicles approach in Detroit, Mich., in this file photo.

DAVE CHIDLEY/The Canadian Press

Canadians in some professions may soon face harsh delays applying to work in the U.S., with expedited applications for tech-friendly U.S. temporary-work visas temporarily suspended to the United States – and in tandem, Canada's technology sector is renewing its call for talented workers to flock here instead.

The H-1B visa allows workers such as programmers, engineers and scientists with "highly specialized knowledge" to enter the United States for three years, with room for a three-year extension. Late last week, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would be suspending "premium-processing" applications for up to six months starting April 3 to catch up with a high-volume backlog. The suspension is the latest in a series of moves since the inauguration of President Donald Trump that restrict mobility for non-U.S. citizens to work in the country. While some Canadians are able to work in the U.S. with a NAFTA Professional visa, those in professions not covered in the classifications will also face extended wait times. But the restrictions the suspension would place on highly skilled immigration to the U.S. could be a boon for Canadian innovation.

Ben Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, says he's already anecdotally noticed more interest from skilled workers in coming to Canada. "What this partly signals is uncertainty in the U.S.," he said in an interview, noting that the process change will make it harder for skilled workers to move their lives and families there with long-term confidence. "Canada becomes a more attractive space."

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The H-1B application process can stretch for months, but paying $1,225 (U.S.) for expedited "premium processing," ensures a response within 15 days.

Ted Ruthizer, a business immigration lawyer with Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel LLP in New York, called the move "unprecedented." While the USCIS suspends expedition some years to catch up on the application queue, "this is across the board, without any time limits; it could be very draconian," Mr. Ruthizer said.

There are many occupations covered by the NAFTA Professional, or TN, status, but some jobs – Mr. Ruthizer points to marketing analysts as an example – are forced to apply through H-1B petitions. Months-long delays could lead to lost job prospects for thousands of people.

"There are a great many Canadian nationals who are not able to get TN status who are going to be affected by the inability to get a quick turnaround on H-1B filings," he said.

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Behind India and China, Canadians submitted the third-highest number of applications for H-1B visas in 2015, with 3,600 applicants in 2015 and 6,900 in 2014, according to USCIS.

Since President Donald Trump's election, skilled workers have been turning their eyes to Canada in greater and greater numbers. Montreal immigration lawer David Cohen said that "there's a significant increase of foreign nationals in the U.S. who are looking to Canada – people currently on H1B visas, from countries like India."

Alexandra Clark, Shopify's director of policy and government affairs, said the incremental details piling up regarding skilled foreign workers' difficulties in the U.S. is a big opportunity for Canada.

"We need to be mindful that this is not about replacing Canadians," she said. "This is an opportunity for these highly skilled individuals to help teach Canadians in a way they haven't seen before, which in turn would create more Canadian jobs."

Carl Rodrigues, chief executive of mobility company SOTI Inc. in Mississauga, said the visa changes will make American competitors to Canadian firms "a little less nimble," on top of making Canada a more attractive destination.

Having previously worked in the U.S., Mr. Rodrigues says he encountered dozens of workers there on H-1B visas. "Pretty much unanimously, their long-game was to get permanent residency," he said. "Now those people would look somewhere else."

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The visa announcement came ahead of an expected new executive order Monday from Trump on his immigration ban.

In January, Bloomberg reported that a separate draft executive order had been circulating, suggesting that "Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers."

Congress has capped the number of H-1B applications to 65,000 each fiscal year, with an additional 20,000 spots available for applicants who've earned a master's degree or higher in the U.S. After the cap has been reached – and it already has for fiscal 2017 – applications are selected by a lottery system.

Hundreds of thousands of people apply for H-1B visas each year. While it's extremely popular in the tech sector, the visa allows applicants to work in the U.S. in industries ranging from architecture, entertainment and health care.

The visa class is a contentious one. A bipartisan bill aiming to reform it was presented to Congress in January, and reintroduced last week to the U.S. House of Representatives. It suggests replacing the lottery with a system that prioritizes applications with criteria including having earned a degree from a U.S. school, and requiring "good faith effort" to hire domestic talent.

Beyond just the desire to keep American jobs in American hands, the bill is hoped to reduce the flood of applications from offshore outsourcing firms. In a report for the Economic Policy Institute last summer, skilled-immigration expert and Howard University assistant professor Ron Hira wrote that the top 10 employers who use the program are all offshore outsourcers.

"Over the ten-year span from 2005-14 those offshoring firms brought in a staggering 170,535 new H-1B guestworkers," he wrote. "Virtually all of these jobs can, and should, be done by American workers or lawful permanent residents."

While foreign-worker applications remain contentious for the U.S. government, Congress is moving in at least one direction that would favour a group of Canadians – snowbirds. Another bill brought forward last month to "encourage Canadian tourism" would let Canadians 55 or older spend up to eight months a year in the U.S., up from the current six.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. In his spare time, he writes about music and the industry around it. More

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