Indian techies look to Canada as the American Dream turns into an H-1B nightmare

The new tech hub.
The new tech hub.
Image: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang
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In 2010, India-born Vikram Rangnekar took up a job as a software engineer at professional networking portal LinkedIn. Along with his family, he moved into a house at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains in Silicon Valley. Earlier, Rangnekar had built an enterprise collaboration startup in Singapore called Socialwok, which had won the DemoPit competition at TechCrunch50, a showcase for startups.

But just as everything seemed to be going well for Rangnekar—he was awaiting his green card—the family traded in its American dream and moved to Toronto, Canada.

“I loved my time at LinkedIn and our life in California, but I couldn’t see myself spending my most productive years on a restrictive visa,” Rangnekar told Quartz. “Canada offered us a PR (permanent residency) and me a chance to go build a startup.”

After moving, Rangnekar founded Webmatr, a server-less app platform for developers, and launched a cloud-based organiser Bell+Cat. Before that, he also published a book, How to Build the Future, on how smart companies like Snapchat, Spotify, and others are using the Google Cloud.

Rangnekar isn’t alone in making a move northwards from the US.

With the Donald Trump administration mounting pressure on immigrants, several other Indian professionals in the US are thinking along the same lines.

The American horror

Trump’s protectionist stance has left Indians working in the US frightened and insecure.

Last March, his government temporarily halted the premium processing of the H-1B, which involved clearing visa applications within 15 days for an additional fee—the standard procedure takes between three and six months. A month later, authorities turned up the heat on computer programmers by making the criteria to qualify for the H-1B harder. Earlier this month, the rules for third-party contract work were made more stringent, shortening the tenure of the visas and toughening renewal clauses.

“Certainty and security of their immigration status in the US, which is very closely tied to how successful they will be professionally and personally, is the biggest problem that Indian immigrants in the US are currently facing,” Vivek Tandon, founder and CEO of EB5 BRICS, an advisory firm specialising in the half-a-million dollar investor route to the green card, told Quartz. Canada, in comparison, has far more liberal visa laws.

Not only is the H-1B visa binding to one employer and the US citizenship hard to obtain, family members of immigrants are also at a loss. Most spouses of immigrant workers aren’t allowed to work in the US. Some of them—spouses of H-1B holders awaiting green cards—were given work authorisation a couple of years back and even that’s up for debate now.

The effects of all these moves are beginning to show: Fewer Indian students enrolled in US universities in 2017 compared to 2016. And the homecoming of US-based Indians has spiked.

“Look, these are talented and in-demand people. If they decide the US isn’t a welcoming place, they’ll go to Canada, China, or Europe instead,” Richard Burke, CEO of global immigration management platform Envoy, told Quartz. “Talent is mobile, and US lawmakers need to understand that this country isn’t the only option for the world’s skilled workforce.”

The new frontier

While the US has increased visa scrutiny, Canada has only become friendlier.

Between 2016 and 2017, the target for Canada’s economic class visas for skilled workers—the category most used by Indian immigrants—was hiked up from 160,600 to 172,500.

Last year, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced the fast-track Global Skills Strategy programme which processes applications for those employed in tech occupations in a short span of two weeks. By comparison, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) takes between six and seven months, or longer, to approve the H-1Bs.

Moreover, Canada’s Express Entry programme allows high-skilled talent in areas like software development, engineering, medical, and other academic professions to migrate to the country in under six months even without securing a job. The point-based system awards people for their level of education, work experience, and language ability in either English or French. “Many H-1B workers in the US will be ideal candidates for Express Entry, as H-1B workers will excel in all of these areas,” immigration law firm Allen and Hodgman writes.

Canada currently admits far more high-skilled workers than the US—one permanent skilled visa for every 409 Canadian residents in 2016, nearly six times more per capita than the US, Richard Burke, CEO of immigration platform Envoy Global, told Quartz.

“Personally I feel it’s game over for the masters-H-1B-green card path used by so many Indians to build a life in the US. The wait time for getting a green card is over 20 years. This makes it as good as never,” Rangnekar said.

And though Silicon Valley is still the hotbed of innovation, Canada is quickly getting there.

The new land of opportunity

The tech ecosystem in Canada has attracted the top firms from Silicon Valley. Amazon has been hiring software developers, engineers, and programmers in Toronto. Uber has posted artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision roles, among other tech positions, in the same city, too.

“When it comes to innovation and upward mobility, the US remains the gold standard,”said Burke of Envoy. “That said, Canada is making great strides as a welcoming and favourable destination, particularly among technology companies where team location is perhaps less important than in industries like healthcare, manufacturing, or financial services.”

Canadian companies have witnessed an uptick in applicants. For instance, Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify logged 40% more applicants from the US in the first quarter of 2017 than it did during an average quarter in 2016. Also, Toronto-based digital medical image company Figure 1 received twice the number of US-based applicants for a senior role posted in January 2017 compared to a similar posting from a year ago.

Myriad startups in upcoming sectors like artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and cryptocurrency are throwing up exciting employment opportunities of their own in Canada.

The one drawback is the possible pay-cut techies need to take to relocate. Canadian techies are paid substantially lower than their US counterparts. For instance, while techies in San Francisco rake in $134,000 annually, the average salary in Toronto was a much lower $74,000 (or $97,000 Canadian), as per employment website Hired. 

However, experts believe it’s hardly a trade-off for stability and peace of mind.

“Canada’s flexible immigration policies, cultural diversity, democratic values, career opportunities, and large communities of the Indian diaspora lure thousands of Indians to apply for a permanent residency visa,” Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at immigration law firm LawQuest, said. The cost of living in Canadian cities is also comparatively more affordable than Silicon Valley and perks like free healthcare are a big draw.