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H-1B visa: Canada’s program to poach Silicon Valley talent off to a booming start

H-1B application documents.    (Meri Simon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
By Ethan Baron The Mercury News

Canada’s new program for poaching skilled technology workers from Silicon Valley hit its maximum 10,000 applications the day after it launched, according to the Canadian government.

The nation to the north announced last month it would start issuing work permits to foreign citizens living and working in the U.S. under the H-1B visa, which is intended for jobs requiring specialized skills and is used heavily by the Silicon Valley tech industry to secure top foreign talent as well as lower-wage contractors employed through staffing firms.

The Government of Canada opened the program to applicants on Sunday, and closed it Monday after receiving 10,000 applications.

Canada’s consul general in San Francisco, Rana Sarkar, told this news organization last month that he believed the majority of work permits would go to H-1B holders from Silicon Valley. “This is where the talent is,” Sarkar said. “This is where we’re coming to attract talent.”

It was not immediately clear whether the 10,000 cap applied only to applications, or to the number of work permits that will ultimately be granted. Sarkar said earlier he believed 10,000 permits would be awarded.

Silicon Valley tech companies employ tens of thousands of H-1B workers, but many of them, particularly those from India, face long waits for green cards, along with uncertainty over their long-term ability to remain in the U.S.

The apparent success of the Canadian program reflects weakness in U.S. immigration policy for retaining tech talent, said Sean Randolph, senior director at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “If other countries like Canada take advantage of our failures we can’t complain,” Randolph said.

Canada’s efforts to leverage those workers’ dissatisfaction and lure them northward dates back a decade to when the Canadian government paid for a billboard beside Highway 101 that said, “H-1B problems? Pivot to Canada.”

The epidemic of recent layoffs in the region’s tech industry likely contributed to the large number of applications for the Canadian work permit by H-1B holders who lost their jobs or fear losing them, Randolph said. “If you’re on the H-1B your visa is tied to your employer,” Randolph said. “So they need to find a new employer quickly or else they have to go home. That puts them in a particularly difficult position.”

Canada, heavily dependent on oil and gas production, is pouring billions of dollars into clean energy to address climate change and diversify its economy, as it also seeks to expand its tech industry. Its population recently surpassed 40 million — roughly the same as California’s — driven by immigration.

Sarkar said last month that Canada wants “catalytic talent” to “spawn future growth for existing companies and a set of future companies.”

The new employment program, officially known as the “H1-B specialty occupation visa holder work permit,” includes provisions for spouses and dependents to apply for residence, work and study permits. Approved H-1B applicants will receive permission to work for up to three years for almost any employer nearly anywhere in Canada.

Participants in the program may be able to obtain permanent residence within the three years and citizenship within a few years after that, Sarkar said.

H-1B workers in the U.S. underwent several tumultuous years during the administration of former President Donald Trump, who sought to limit the use of the visa and strip work authorization from the spouses of H-1B holders who hold the H-4 visa.